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Before cinemas in Europe went into a second, coronavirus lockdown in November, German animation films were having a bit of a moment.
Two by Two: Overboard (aka Ooops: The Adventure Continues) was the number one film at the U.K. box office for Entertainment One the final weekend before lockdown, earning around $3 million in the few, socially-distanced theaters still open. On the continent, two home-grown animated features — Constantin Films’ Dragon Rider and Yakari: A Spectacular Journey from Leonine — were top 10 hits, with Dragon Rider taking in around $2.5 million over three weeks and Yakari earning close to $1 million in its opening week, the week before lockdown. The latter, a French-German co-production, grossed an additional $2.8 million in France via indie distributor Bac Films.
Independent productions of all sorts are benefiting from the lack of big studio competition during COVID times, but the success of German animation stands out. For the past few years, German animated films have been steadily gaining ground in the independent marketplace worldwide. The first Two By Two feature, also known as Ooops: Noah is Gone and produced by Hamburg-based Ulysses Filmproduktion, grossed some $27 million at the international box office. The first two of Studio 100’s Maya the Bee features — 2014’s Maya the Bee and 2018’s Maya the Bee: The Honey Games — together earned close to $50 million in theaters worldwide. The third entry in the Maya franchise, Maya the Bee: The Golden Orb, is being sold by Studio 100 to buyers at this year’s virtual American Film Market.
German producers have found a sweet spot in the independent market for animated features that are small enough, budget-wise, to be affordable but stand out from the lower-end, mass-produced films from India, Russia, and South Korea intended solely for the home-entertainment market.
“In Germany, we’ve learned to work with budgets of between €8 million-€12 million ($9.5 million-$14 million) to produce quality animated films that can be marketed and sold theatrically worldwide,” says Thorsten Wegener, director of business operations at Studio 100 and a producer on the Maya the Bee films. “We won’t ever be able to produce animated films [with these budgets] that match up to the big Disney or Pixar projects, and that’s not our goal. But there’s a substantial independent animation market, internationally, that exists alongside the major studios, and in that market, German animation has a good reputation and has established itself with visual quality, a certain production value, and a certain level of storytelling.”
Beyond cinemas, Wegener sees growth opportunities for German animated features, both in the booming streaming market, as well as among traditional television buyers who used to rely mainly on studio-backed films.
“But many of the studios are holding back their animated and kids films and putting them directly on their own streaming services. So a free-TV channel in Spain, for example, doesn’t have access to Disney movies because they are going to Disney+,” Wegener notes. “We are already noticing that the streamers, in addition to providing a new group of buyers, are also creating new demand in other areas because the big European networks can’t fill their schedules with their traditional, studio output deals.”
The current success of German animation was built on several pillars, among them Germany’s numerous top drawer VFX houses —among them Frankfurt-based Pixomondo —famous for creating the Game of Thrones dragons —the Berlin and Munich post-production group Trixter, whose credits include work on Captain Marvel and Black Panther; ScanLine VFX, whose German operations are in Munich and Stuttgart and whose work can be seen on Netflix’ Stranger Things, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Far from Home, and Warner Bros.’ upcoming The Batman; and Rise, which has VFX studios across Germany and did animation work on Dragon Rider as well as visual effects on such upcoming features as Mathew Vaughn’s The King’s Man and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch.
Government support has also played a key role, with state and regional subsidies helping close budget gaps for indie animation features that otherwise would have a tough time getting started. German Films, the government-backed association that promotes German cinema worldwide, has its own Animation Germany division — launched three years ago — which focuses solely on animated work. Ina Sommer, former development head at Trixter, was named head of Animation Germany on September 1, 2020, and highlighted the increasing “creative and economic importance” of animated film and TV for the local industry.
German producers can also draw on a wealth of original IP from the country’s strong children’s book market. Dragon Rider was adapted from the 1997 children’s novel by German author Cornelia Funke (whose work also includes the Inkheart and MirrorWorld series). Maya the Bee is based on the Waldemar Bonsels’ classic from 1912. Two by Two director Toby Genkel is currently working on The Ogglies, a family animation feature based on the books by Erhard Dietl about a family of happy, smelly creatures who live in a municipal garbage dump. The School of Magical Creatures, an upcoming live-action/animation feature from director Gregor Schnitzler, and produced by the sibling team of Alexandra and Meike Kordes (Four Minutes), is adapted from the best-selling kids’ book series by Margit Auer.
The later feature — which Leonine is set to bow in German in February — is the first of a planned film franchise. Pre-production on The School of Magical Creatures 2 is already underway and principal photography is planned for early next year.
While not pure animation, School of Magical Creatures highlights the more ambitious side of the German industry. The 3-D animated animals —Pinkie the Magpie, Rabbat the Fox and Henrietta the Tortoise — were designed and directed by Tomar Eshed, the director of Dragon Rider, and produced via several animation studios, with post-production handled through Cine Chromatix Stuttgart.
“A lot of people didn’t think we could do this combination of live-action and animation out of Germany. I think we proved them wrong,” says Alexandra Kordes.
While there is ample state support for animated features in Germany —Magical Animals got backing from regional funds in Bavaria, Berlin, Baden-Württemberg, North-Rhein Westphalia, and Vienna in Austria, as well as national support from state funds in both German and Austria —Kordes says there is still a shallow pool of top animated talent in the country. She notes that the first test audience for Magical Animals were kids at a daycare center located beneath the Kordes & Kordes offices in Munich.
“We had first started with various studios and when we showed their first version of Rabbat the Fox to those kids, they immediately said: ‚that’s horrible!‘. They were right,” says Kordes. “Eshed’s first take, however, won them over. It’s the version that appears in the film.”
“The animation industry is underdeveloped in Germany,” adds Eshed. “The technical and creative talent is all here, but there are few people working at an international level.”
Born in Israel, Eshed studied animation in Germany and stayed, setting up Berlin-based VFX studio Lumatic with some of his fellow students.
“We specialize in 3D character development, which is the Champions League of animation,” he notes. “There aren’t many doing that in Germany.”
Germany’s subsidy system, which encourages co-production —Constantin produced Dragon Rider together with Rise Pictures, Belgium studio Cyborn, and Able & Baker in Spain, Australian-based Flying Bark, and Studio B Animation are co-producers alongside Studio 100 on Maya the Bee 3— makes it harder, Eshed thinks, to get the country’s animation industry to the next level.
“Big animation productions, like Dragon Rider, should ideally be done under one roof, where you have the same philosophy, the same culture of animation, from the start of character design to the last elements of post-production,” he says. “If you are in Berlin working remotely with Australian and Indian teams, it’s not just the different time zones, it’s the different cultures and traditions of animation that make it harder for everyone to work together towards the same goal.”
It’s notable that amid the growing commercial success for German animation, the country’s industry has yet to produce a global player to compare with France’s Illumination (the Minions franchise) or Britain’s Aardman Animations (Shaun the Sheep, Chicken Run).
“Germany at the moment is somewhere in-between, it’s big enough to support a significant animation industry, and things are getting made, but it’s still a fight,” says Eshed. “My hope is that the success we’ve seen will encourage people to be more ambitious about what we can do with animation here in Germany, that we do more original material and do it at a truly international level. If enough people want it to change, it will.”
Wegener, of Studio 100 Films, is not so sure.
“At the moment, German has a very strong subsidy system and a very strong co-production system,” he says. “You can currently finance, produce, sell, and make a business out of animated features in the $10 million-$15 million range, without major outside investors. For bigger budgets —$20 million-$30 million — you’ll need a different business model. At the moment there is not really a market for German animated films of that size. But if there is in the future, we’ll be there to make them.“
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