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Cartoon 2021 – Cartoon Business

Industry Report: Animation

At Cartoon Business, Antti Haikala and Solveig Langeland discuss the most recent changes in producing animated features

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The two speakers talked through the challenges of portraying diversity and touched on European animation’s USP, among other topics

At Cartoon Business, Antti Haikala and Solveig Langeland discuss the most recent changes in producing animated features
l-r: John Lomas-Bullivant, Antti Haikala and Solveig Langeland during the discussion (© Cartoon)

The last day of Cartoon Business (8-10 December), held this year in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, hosted a panel titled “The Economics of European Animated Features”. The discussion was chaired by John Lomas-Bullivant and saw the participation of industry veterans Antti Haikala, of Finland’s Anima Vitae, and Solveig Langeland, of German sales outfit Sola Media.

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Haikala talked through the activities of his firm, founded in 2000 as a service production studio working for franchises such as Angry Birds [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, Lego and The Moomins [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
. In 2008, Anima Vitae started creating its first IP, producing the Christmas flick Niko & the Way to the Stars [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, followed by Niko 2 – Little Brother, Big Trouble [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
in 2012. While focusing on original IPs for feature-length projects, the studio still acts as a service producer on serialised content. After finding some business partners at another event organised by Cartoon, the Finnish studio opened a branch in Malaysia in 2013, and the two divisions now work as one company. Anima Vitae is also teaming up with Aurora Studios (a minority partner), starting from this year. Currently, the studio is working on three features, Fleak (slated for release in 2023 – see the interview), Niko 3 (to be released in 2024) and Trash Monsters (set for a 2025 release). The company can count over 100 employees spread across Finland, Malaysia and other countries, producing an average of 404 minutes of animation each year for a turnover of about €2-3 million.

In her contribution, Langeland mentioned her outfit’s focus on selling animated features and family-orientated live-action flicks, and she provided several key figures and reflections on the current state of European animation. In one of the slides she presented, she pointed out how the major global markets have proven to have different levels of resilience throughout the pandemic. In Europe, in particular, Germany (-20.8%, over the period 2016-2020) and the UK (-12.2%) have suffered the largest decline in terms of feature-film production, whilst France (-4.1%), Spain (-4.1%) and Italy (+3.1%) have recorded better results. In total, the world’s feature production declined by 25.1% in 2020. These trends are also visible from the global box-office results, whose revenue fell from $7,473 billion in 2019 to $2,038 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, content spend by leading streamers is on the rise – for example, Netflix increased its investments from $11.8 billion in 2020 to $17 billion in 2021, whilst Disney+ and Hulu did likewise from $5 to $33 billion.

Despite the challenging scenario and the overwhelming influence of the streaming giants, Langeland remained positive and said that for animated features, theatrical exposure is still “the best you can get”, even though platforms keep on shrinking the windows. Arthouse films, she argues, will be the ones taking the stronger hit. Besides, Europe has much to offer, according to the two speakers. Langaland defined the continent’s co-production system as “fantastic”, aligned with the European spirit, and capable of reducing financial risks and increasing the chances of a “win”. Haikala agreed with Langeland and added that Europe’s USP also consists of the possibility of producing a film for €5-10 million, whilst this budget is considered incredibly low by US players.

Speaking about how Sola Media’s editorial strategy is being reshaped by the recent industry changes, Langeland stressed the outfit’s focus on the 6-10 segment and co-viewing experiences with parents. She added that they look for humorous content and prefer stories with animals as the main characters, since depicting people now needs much more sensitivity, while “a hedgehog looks the same everywhere”, and in many cultures, pets are considered “cuter than humans”. Langeland’s words opened up the topic of diversity, and Haikala chimed in, saying how “the whole concept of diversity varies [place by place]”. He mentioned his personal experience of discussing one of his projects with a Russian buyer. The main character had two mothers, but that was a rather marginal aspect in terms of the storytelling. However, the buyer was still reluctant to advance talks for a project in which the protagonist had “two lesbian mothers”. Moreover, animals seem not to be totally exempt from the debate around diversity and the depiction of dysfunctional families. Niko, the lead character of the IPs of the same name, is a reindeer born to a single mother after a one-night stand, and the US version was brutally cut, as CBS found said aspect problematic for its audience. On another production, Haikala disclosed, the lead character was a boy in a wheelchair, and while in talks with potential backers, many asked if they could make him able to walk again at the end of the film. While admitting the complexity of such a topic and how this often requires navigating difficult waters, Haikala said that it’s still possible to be respectful and go beyond the primitive concept of diversity as “ticking boxes”, but also pointed out how this occasionally leads to overreactions by the parties involved, and in particular during the script-development phase.

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