ALICE Interreg (Animation League for Increase Collaboration in Europe) explores opportunities for interregional collaborations in the European animation sector to stimulate the sector's potential for growth and innovation and promote the development of a major and pan-European industry. This project brings together six European partners, including film funds, unions and regional or international institutions: Wallimage (Belgium), Pictanovo (France), PROA (Spain), the Rzeszow Regional Development Agency (Poland), the Ministry of Culture of the Slovak Republic (Slovakia) and the Puglia Region (Italy).
Interview with Philippe Reynaert, ex-director of Wallimage and with Iván Agenjo, CEO of Peekaboo Animation and chairman of ProAnimats (which is also part of PROA).
How was the ALICE Interreg project born?
Philippe Reynaert: As director of Wallimage, I participated in numerous round-table discussions about animated films. At that time, once these exchanges were over, everyone went back to work and didn't have time to really follow and pursue the raised reflections. That situation had caused personal frustration... I then realised that the ERDF (the European Regional Development Fund) allocated minimal budget to culture. So, I decided to apply to Interreg Europe, the ERDF's interregional cooperation programme whose main objective is to strengthen regional development policies at European level. In order to be part of ALICE Interreg, we had to find at least five partners in regions spread from East to West and from North to South Europe. (Moonday would have been very useful at that time!)
What were PROA's main objectives in joining ALICE Interreg?
Iván Agenjo: PROA is a federation of audiovisual producers in Barcelona whose main objective is to create a better ecosystem to its members covering financial, legal or marketing aspects, by lobbying in front of public institutions and other agents, mainly domestic ones. Within this framework, ALICE interreg is one of our first steps at European level to lobby, network and represent the interests of the producers who are associated under our animation section, Proanimats.
What are the reflections carried out since the creation of ALICE Interreg?
Ph. R.: We have given ourselves two years to deliver a white paper of recommendations (we have already entered the 2nd year). We put concrete proposals on paper in terms of, for example, co-production or distribution. We are also working on a common vocabulary of trades so that all countries adopt the same nomenclature. At present, from one country to another, the same terms are not used to designate the same functions and are sometimes a source of problems. We would also like to reflect on the differences in wage scales between Eastern and Western countries.
I. A.: One of the main conclusions we have arrived is that collaboration and exchange of information are two key factors to improve the current state of our industry. Globalization and big SVOD corporations are changing the scope of the market, making it more difficult to independent producers to survive; that’s why it is mandatory for them to collaborate with other independent partners, mainly from abroad, to generate synergies. And this can only be possible if the legal, financial and tax systems are similar or at least find ways of cooperation between territories.
What are the strong points of European animation?
I.A.:European animation has always been different from American and Asian ones, with a unique, special flavor linked to the rich culture and History of the continent – and also to the multiplicity of languages and points of views. While American productions are normally almost perfect in the technical or promotional fields, with high resources and huge domestic market potential, but quite uniform in their themes or outputs, European productions are usually smaller and not so expensive, but artistically excel. Both the storytelling and the graphic differ from mainstream commercial products here, turning European works into “animation gems”. This does not mean we cannot produce blockbusters for commercial cinemas, but this is not usually the model we follow here.
Ph. R.: While it is clear that Hollywood has the firepower, most of the stories come from Europe. Disney's cinema is inspired by many European authors such as Perrault Grimm or by Asian legends such as Mulan. However, European animation remains very fragile. In 2014, European animated films were only 20% of European theatre releases (compared to 71% of American animated films). If we take all films together, European movies shown in European theatres represent 33%. It is still too little, but at least it represents one-third of world cinema (US productions remain dominant). Fun fact: when I suggested the name ALICE, I was told that it sounds very cartoonish, but it was an American reference. I then explained that the very first animated film Alice in Wonderland was a French-English movie. The film was released on the screens in France and the UK in 1949. As Disney was preparing its Alice in Wonderland, the American studio bought all the copies of the European version to prevent its distribution. So, the film had a very short life and was soon put away. Somewhere, the fact that it is called Alice also evokes this eternal conflict between the American big brother and the European little brother.
In recent years, what are the main developments you have observed in the European animation sector?
I.A.: There is not a single European sector: rather than that, we find different realities depending on the European country we focus on. There are highly competitive and protective markets such as France, Belgium or Ireland, while some others have less competitive advantages due to different reasons. However, it is true that most territories face the same challenges usually related to financing struggles, competition towards American content and the production outsourcing to labor-cheap locations. In addition, the multiplicity of VOD options through Internet (whether free or subscription-based) has generalized animation consumption as a key content, but this has not caused an improvement in producers’ conditions; on the contrary, it has made competition grow. Thus, envisage an increase in coproduction schemes to face higher budget volumes, with the final aim of competing globally or regionally rather than just in our respective domestic markets.
What are the ways for improving the current existing policy instruments?
I.A.: There are two ways of improving the exiting instruments. The first one would be from the point of view of the competition between territories. In this framework, the strategy would be to improve the competitiveness of the territory through better tax incentives (increasing the percentages of deduction, lowering the bases, softening the conditions, etc.) and higher direct funds or grants to all the steps in the value chain (development, production, distribution). This is an intensive strategy that depends on the financial capabilities of each country or region, which means is not always possible to pursue. On the other hand, there is also a way to improve the situation from a collaboration point of view. Under this idea, one potential strategy would be to adapt the current instruments to make them compatible with the existing instruments in other regions, so that producers from different territories can multiply the range of potential tools for their shows. This is the logical place to land at in the long term, but probably the most difficult one to organize.
One of Wallimage's goals is to strengthen Wallonie companies' competitiveness through the expansion of new technologies. Today, what are the main challenges you are facing in terms of animation technologies?
Ph.R: Today, everyone - even in small Wallonia, in small Belgium - can have access to the most efficient machines even if it remains expensive. However, the obsolescence of programmes and devices has accelerated. What was considered to be the Rolls-Royce, three years ago, is completely obsolete today. On the other hand, there is a workforce problem. There are excellent animation schools like La Cambre or Saint-Luc in Belgium, but they mainly train directors. However, only one or two directors are needed to make a film while 30, 40 or more animators are required. Animation studios are always on the lookout for new talents, and sometimes they have to train them themselves. In addition to this problem, there is the great attractiveness of international studios where salaries are often higher. And above all, the films on which the animators will work are international and therefore have a better chance of being seen worldwide.
What are ALICE Interreg's next steps?
Ph.R: The "year three" is really going to be about exposing our researches and findings as much as possible in festivals, in forum, on professional information platforms. It will be a year of lobbying. We are currently working on a system to facilitate co-production. To do this, we surround ourselves with a law firm because this subject directly impacts on Europe's will to avoid intra-European competition. Moreover, through our reflections, we aim at a way of working that does not distort competition, but which allows us to speed up the process. I cannot tell you more at this stage. What I can say to you, however, is that the code name that we use to designate this mechanism which, if it succeeds, will be one of ALICE's first achievements: Wonderland.