Cannes: Animation Is a Rare Bright Spot for Russian Film Industry

'Kikoriki. Legend of the Golden Dragon'

Such franchises as 'Kikoriki' and 'Snow Queen' have sold well internationally.

Russian films are having a tough time these days. Few sell outside their national borders and fewer still have any box-office success there.

Except, that is, for Russian animation.

Over the past few years, the Russian animation industry has been quietly turning out cartoon franchises, like Kikoriki, Snow Queen or Masha and the Bear, that have sold around the world, and done solid business to boot.

Animation was the focus Wednesday on the second-ever Animation Day in Cannes, a day full of talks, panel discussions, animation screenings and networking events. While Russia wasn't featured, it has quietly had success in the space.

Wizart's two-part The Snow Queen, a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fable — the same Disney used as the basis for its megahit Frozen — has sold to 130 countries to date, with a total international box office of $30 million. The third installment, currently in production, has attracted significant investment from China.

Masha and the Bear, an animated TV series from Moscow-based Animaccord Studio, has been a similar global hit. The company says the franchise generated $225 million in merchandising revenues alone last year.

Dmitry Rudovsky, producer of Kikoriki: Legend of the Golden Dragon, the latest in the hit animated franchise about a group of happy, round little animals, tells The Hollywood Reporter that it's the combination of high-quality animation and easy adaptability that gives Russian cartoons their universal appeal. Since animation is dubbed, there's no language barrier and no obvious country of origin. Russian animated films are careful to avoid obvious cultural references. "The story should be universal and understandable for viewers regardless of their mentality, religion, age or gender," Yuri Moskvin, a producer at Wizart, tells THR.

Russia has a long tradition of animated films, going back to the Soviet era. While it went through a tough period in the 1990s and early 2000s, the industry has bounced back, with 10 feature films and 35 animated series currently in production. While the budget for a Russian animated feature can't compete with the likes of Pixar or DreamWorks, they have carved out a niche in the second tier where, according to Ruben Atoyan, a producer of animated feature Quackerz, "they have the same appeal for international markets as their European analogues."

Atoyan says the only real obstacle for Russian animation is recent sanctions slapped on Russia over the Crimean crisis.

"[The sanctions mean] European animated films of similar quality have better sales prospects just because they are European rather than Russian," he laments.

Unlike Soviet-era animation, the new Russia cartoons lack a distinctive visual style. Most seem to copy the Disney mold, albeit on a fraction of the budget.

"There are attempts to do something unique, but they are still few," says Vadim Sotskov, general director of KinoAtis, which produces the franchise Belka and Strelka.

Sotskov believes the quality of Russian animation is increasing rapidly, but he admits it will be some time before made-in-Moscow films can truly compete on the global stage.

"Overall, the quality of Russian animation is on the rise, but we need to admit that we're still running behind high-budget Hollywood products," he explains. "On the technology level, it is possible to catch up quite quickly, but Russian companies don't have such a well-established system for content distribution as Hollywood."