Animation in Trouble
Text by Vladimir Kozlov
The Russian animation industry has recently suffered a major blow, as the economic downturn has hit the entire local entertainment sector. Producers are putting all their hopes on government support and have few expectations that the situation will allow the animation business to function as a selfsustainable enterprise.
As recently as a year ago, the outlook could not have looked more different and many in the industry predicted a rosy future for Russian animated films that were beginning to attract audiences previously interested mostly in Hollywood releases.
By the mid-2000s the local animation industry, which in Soviet times turned out many good films, such as Yuri Norshteyn’s Yozhik v Tumane (The Hedgehog in the Mist), Vyacheslav Kotyonochkin’s mini-series Nu Pogodi! (I’ll Get You!) and Fyodor Khitruk’s Vinni Pukh, a loose adaptation of the Winnie the Pooh story, had survived the hardship of the 1990s and was beginning to successfully adapt to new economic conditions.
By then, Russian audiences had already seen many Disney and Pixar films, so local animators had to look for ways to make films that would not look blatantly inferior to those, and at the same time, would differ in some way from standard Hollywood fare. One strategy was to base films on Russian fairy tales, and it turned out to be successful.
In late 2007, the feature-length animated film Ilya Muromets i Solovey Razboynik which was produced on a budget of $2 million by the St. Petersburg- based studio Melnitsa and directed by Vladimir Toropchin, grossed just under $10 million in theaters, setting a record for an animated film at the domestic box office. Commenting on the success of the film, its producers noted that people here wanted to watch locally made feature-length animation just as much as American audiences do.
According to Melnitsa’s head, Alexander Boyarsky, the film was released at a time when Russian audiences’ interest in animated films was on the rise, and the prospects looked good, although there were no plans to dramatically raise budgets or step up production. The studio has kept its pace, releasing about one feature-length animated film a year, but its plans are now in jeopardy, as those of other local animation companies, as the economic and financial downturn has hit the industry hard.
“There has been quite a serious negative impact,” says Alexander Gerasimov, general director of the Moscow-based company Masterfilm. “Most animated film projects are made with support from the government and over the last six months funding has dried up. Some projects were completed anyway, but some had to be suspended. The cancellation of some projects or entirely stopping production by a company is not uncommon for this industry.”
Just a couple years ago, at a relatively prosperous time for the entire local film industry, producers of animated films complained of a lack of properly trained talent and crew, saying that although local film schools annually produced dozens of screenwriters, very few were qualifi ed enough to start working in the animation industry, while none of the Russian schools trained animation artists.
Now, with the crisis in full swing and projects falling apart, even those few qualified people who producers were once able to attract, are forced to be look elsewhere for a living. “There has been an outfl ow of people from the animation industry,” says Gerasimov. “These are unique people and they are leaving to go to other industries. It will be extremely difficult to get them back once the crisis is over.”
While producers of TV series and feature films may profit from the downturn, as fees demanded by talent and crew are now decreasing, this is not the case for the animation industry. “Unlike, say, the movie industry, fees in animation have never been infl ated that much,” Gerasimov explains. “So there’s no chance of bringing them down. If someone is launching a project now, they would be most likely to hire personnel on the same wages as they did last year.”
Industry insiders say that they hope the government’s support will return, helping it to survive this difficult period. “The animation sector won’t be able to bounce back that quickly,” Gerasimov says. “Here, production takes much longer than with feature films or a TV series. You can spend three to four times more on production of an animated film than that of a feature film of the same length, and production costs are high here.”
Gerasimov believes that the recovery should start with feature films and TV series, when television channels resume placing orders for those kinds of projects, after which the turn of animated films could come, but for the time being, only state support could keep the industry going. Meanwhile, Masterfilm hopes to be able to find funding for a new, three-dimensional feature-length animated film, Bogi Zelenoy Planety (Green Planet Gods), based on the sci-finovel by Andrei Solomatov.
Among the few successful exceptions is the children’s cartoon series Smeshariki, which has been produced by Masterfilm in cooperation with the St. Petersburg-based animation studio Peterburg since 2003. Initially the series targeted 4 to 9 year olds. The name of the series is derived from the Russian words smeshnye, meaning funny and shariki, meaning little balls and features stylized round animals, consisting of 6 minute long episodes. To date, more than 200 episodes have been produced and aired here.
Having won the hearts of Russian children, the Smeshariki project soon began its international expansion. Adaptation rights have been sold to several foreign countries and the English language version, GoGoRiki, has been broadcasted on a US channel since October 2008, while a German version was first aired in December 2008. GoGoRiki has become the first ever cartoon series adapted from a Russian original to be aired in the United States.
Sales of foreign rights, coupled with merchandising, are helping the series to be self-sufficient. “For this project, we’ve received no government funding,” Gerasimov says. “But we’ve been able to keep it going, and that is important, as the brand’s strength would decrease if we stopped producing new episodes.”
Gerasimov adds that a feature length, three-dimensional animated film about Smeshariki, called Smeshariki 3D, is currently in production, with a budget of about $7 million and is scheduled to be completed in spring or summer of 2010.
Another area that seems to be less affected by the economic crisis is the so-called Auteur Animation, or films produced almost entirely for festivals and hardly ever seen by mass audiences, as opposed to theatrically released, feature-length animated films.
In 2000, Russian director Alexander Petrov won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film for his Stariki More (The Old Man and the Sea), based on the story by Ernest Hemingway. A year ago, he received another Oscar nomination for Moya Lyubov (My Love) and this year, Ubornaya Istoriya – Lyubovnaya Istoriya (Lavatory – Love Story) by Konstantin Bronzit was also nominated for an Oscar in the category of Animated Short Film, not to mention dozens of prizes collected by Russian animators for their short, non-commercial films at different international festivals.