Uli Meyer’s Quest to Produce an Independent Animated Feature

Without the support and deep pockets of a major studio, financing an animated film is a task of Sisyphean proportions, even for a skilled animator with decades of experience under their belt.

Animation veteran Uli Meyer (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest) recently posted 15 minutes of the story reel for his 90-minute CG feature film project MonsterMania, which has been in and out of pre-production for almost a decade. After 20 years of running his own commercial house and working on a variety of high profile projects like the special 70mm Lion King feature Circle of Life, the Mickey Mouse short Runaway Brain and large portions of the 1996 sports comedy Space Jam for Warner Bros., he has decided to focus on original animation productions.

From his studio in London, Meyer took time out of his busy schedule to talk with Cartoon Brew about the challenges of financing animated films, finicky studio tastes and the progress of his hand-drawn, half-hour St. Trinian’s featurette.

Cartoon Brew: Tell us about MonsterMania.

Uli Meyer: MonsterMania is a horror comedy featuring my own versions of the classic monsters and also a few new ones. The film is… wait for it… Young Frankenstein meets The Fearless Vampire Killers, but all animated.

An animated adventure with plenty of spooky moments and funny moments and monster moments — I get goosebumps just thinking about it. When Christopher Lee read the script, he immediately agreed to do one of the voices and we recorded him in 2007.

http://youtu.be/z4bR30fadqY

Cartoon Brew: You’ve been pitching the film to studios? How has it been received?

Uli Meyer: When I first took the film idea to Los Angeles to pitch to the major studios in 2004, I was hoping to secure a distribution deal. During my visit I found out that both Sony and DreamWorks had monster movies on their development slate (Hotel Transylvania and Monsters vs. Aliens, respectively), but I was not concerned; studios take notoriously long to green light anything and I hoped that I could outrun them once I had that distribution deal, but the other studios weren’t forthcoming. The argument was that DreamWorks and Sony were most likely to spend $100m+ on their films plus the same again on advertising. Because of that my measly $40m budget wouldn’t afford a movie that could compete.

A $40m budget is tiny for US standards but was unheard of in Europe.

Back in England I started looking into alternative ways to keep the project going. A $40m budget is tiny for US standards but was unheard of in Europe. I believe in a global success, but most European films at the time cost between $2m and $6m and they are never seen outside their home territory. I teamed up with a German producer team who assured me that they could get my film financed and they managed to raise an initial sum of money that was used to keep developing the film further, but after several half-witted attempts to find partners in European markets, it transpired that these guys had no idea what they were doing.

I always thought that my project would be perfect for Universal. Unfortunately all they were interested in was to make sure that my version of Frankenstein’s monster didn’t have bolts on the neck and wasn’t green. Universal was in the middle of trying to revive their monsters through live-action incarnations and that year the lacklustre success of Van Helsing somewhat dampened their enthusiasm.

Cartoon Brew: On your website you stated, “Trying to make a film independently has so far never quite worked out for my studio.” A lot of animators out there dream of one day making their own movie and believe that starting their own studio is the last step in that dream. In your experience, what has been the biggest hurdle in getting your own feature films made?

Uli Meyer: For the benefit of anybody who reads this, I am giving you a radically abbreviated account of some of the things that happened in my professional life so that you can draw your own conclusions. I absolutely encourage anybody to make their own film and find their way and maybe this account will help those individuals to avoid some of the downfalls.

If making your own movie is your dream, setting up a studio first in order to one day make a movie is not necessarily the best way to make that dream happen.

As an animator you like nothing better than to create. The idea of having your own studio where you can beaver away is very exciting. But if making your own movie is your dream, setting up a studio first in order to one day make a movie is not necessarily the best way to make that dream happen. Running a studio is a huge responsibility, rent, rates, utilities, wages, insurance, equipment, maintenance, etc. become a monthly liability that demands a lot of turnover. Even at its smallest, my studio in London had to have a minimum yearly turnover of $1.2m just to break even. Most of the time you will find yourself working on client projects and frantically pitching for more work and the landlord will pocket most of your profits. If you work hard and find that there is a bit of spare money at the end of the year, you can use the little time left to do your own thing. But therein lies the problem; trying to make a feature film is a full time job and nigh impossible to achieve as a side project.

But let’s say you do. After a year or so working on your film, you will eventually realise that unless you want to do a Richard Williams (spending 30 years on a film that never gets made) you need to go out there and raise money. Now you will encounter the world of film finance, which is completely different to the world an animator/filmmaker inhabits. Yet, the one can’t live without the other. In order to learn the finance game properly, you will have to abandon your creative job and be prepared to spend considerable time learning about business and building business connections. I do not know many artists who have a head or the patience for that. I don’t. Instead I’ve tried to partner up with people who I hoped could fulfill that role. Unfortunately none succeeded. I actually believe they do not exist. If they would, they wouldn’t be looking for work.

Cartoon Brew: So, is navigating the feature development landscape any easier for an experienced animator such as yourself?

Uli Meyer: It has been fairly easy for me to arrange pitch screenings with the major studios because of my studio’s reputation. Building that reputation took a few years and animation was a different game then; it depended on the artist’s abilities to draw. Today there are so many studios out there creating highly polished digital images, it is difficult to lift your studio’s profile above the crowd based solely on your work. We would always create the most elaborate pitches, with proof of concept films to screen and design bibles to illustrate the ideas, but pitch methods change and if you consider that today some projects get green-lit based on a headline and mock-up movie poster, you can save yourself a lot of time and money. And you do not need to own a studio for that.

After more than twenty years of making commercials and creating animated films for clients, I decided earlier in the year to shutter up my commercial studio. I had a great time and am proud to have worked with so many talented and wonderful artists. But it is time to pay attention to my projects full time and explore all the new possibilities of making that dream happen.

Cartoon Brew: There seems to be an expectation from new animators and animation fans that the talented artists should simply get together and work on their own project independent of the big studios. But it seems like it’s far more complicated than that. What is the biggest misconception about the process of making your own feature length movie?

Uli Meyer: It always makes me smile when I read that suggestion somewhere. How would that work though? These guys have to earn a living and where would the money come from?

Cartoon Brew: What’s your experience with crowdfunding? Do you intend on taking advantage of it with MonsterMania?

Uli Meyer: I’m happy to say that I successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to produce a picture book entitled Cuthbert was Bored. It was a great experience and worked well for the relatively small amount of funding I was seeking. Running a campaign is a lot of hard work if you want it to succeed. For its 30-day duration I worked nearly full-time on simply creating awareness. After stretching past my goal, I delivered the book I wanted to make.

I am considering a Kickstarter campaign for MonsterMania and working on how to make it work and how to get backers excited – and most importantly on how to get it out there and how to advertise it. I am thinking about what could be the reward for backing an animatic? It couldn’t be the actual animatic for obvious reasons. Maybe access to a production diary and artwork, limited edition merchandising, only available for Kickstarter backers might be a way? Something that is great value for money. I’m still thinking and suggestions are welcome.

Cartoon Brew: When it comes to film production do you believe crowd funding is a viable option? Do you think it has any shortcomings?

Uli Meyer: The biggest hurdle is creating awareness. If nobody knows your project is out there, you’re doomed to fail. You have to reach those few thousand animation enthusiasts to back your project with a few quid each. I am sure they are out there.

I can see Kickstarter or similar sites changing the way film projects get financed — especially short films and other non-commercial formats could get a new lease of life. I have always wanted to make a Tex Avery style short, hand-drawn, watercolor backgrounds, fully animated entirely the traditional way. Just like the original ones. While there is no way to ever finance a thing like that today through the old channels, crowd funding is a viable option.

Cartoon Brew: Last year, you announced the shelving of your St. Trinian’s project due to unforeseen setbacks. Can you say anything about the status of that project?

Uli Meyer: The St. Trinian’s project is still on hold. It is all to do with animation rights that were erroneously sold as part of a package to a live action company who wants to make their version. They do not have the rights to Ronald’s designs though; I am the only one who has permission to use them. Not that they are interested in animation. But they refuse to license the animation rights to me. For what reason one can only guess.


  • Laura Hohman

    He should definitely do crowdfunding! I know I would contribute to see a cg feature film in this style! Its fresh and different!

  • Ryan Adams

    really hope this happens, the thought of uli directing makes me very excited!

  • Roberto Severino

    Very very inspiring story. Uli Meyer is a saint and I wish him good luck in his endeavors.

  • Smiley

    This reminds me of one of the most under appreciated animators in the business Jeff Lew. He just saved up a lot of money and made Killer Bean Forever on his PC. So he used no kickstarter no nothing just pure will power!

  • http://www.elliotelliotelliot.com ElliotCowan

    Among many others I worked for a time on Monstermania! and had a blast.
    If it ever rises to the surface it’ll be a lot of fun.
    Cheers Uli : )

  • roque

    This article is SPOT on. Good luck, Uli!

  • Mongoose Jnr. III

    I’m confused:
    This film HAS been pitched to the major studios so presumably it’s INTENDED as a studio “type” broad-appeal film (as opposed to a personal artistic or “uncommercial” project).
    BUT – It has a near-studio-sized budget ($40M) and here it’s being presented as a struggling indie film(?)

    In Europe there just isn’t that kind of money flying around because of the way the revenue streams work, the marketing machine which is necessary to make the most of the release, the many sources of finance which all need to agree with each other etc.etc.etc.
    Plus we live in a time where budgets are shrinking as it is.

    Therefore it’s hard to see the point in trying to make a “studio-size” film but without the studio? That just sounds like very, very hard work (if it’s even possible?)
    If you operate outside the studio sphere it’s a trade-off: more creative freedom, less money & time.
    If you scale down your budget, focus on what’s important rather than expecting studio-level production values on a shoestring budget, find new ways of working to achieve results, then things CAN happen – without waiting a decade.
    The fact is that more independent animation movies are being made than EVER before…In 2012 around 18-20 independent animated features were made in Europe alone.

    • Uli Meyer

      Hi Mongoose Jnr. III

      Thank you for your comment and I’m sorry that you are confused.

      I am of the opinion that an independent film can be a commercial project with broad appeal and doesn’t have to be solely a personal art project or “uncommercial”. The producer of any independent film would not say ‘no’ to a North American distribution deal.

      I agree with you that it might be less of a hassle to work within the European modus operandi, as you suggested. The concept of MonsterMania is too big for that though. Sometimes the idea and the scale of a project are unchangeably intertwined. There wasn’t a choice. But rather than give up on the project, I opted to try and find a way. A distribution deal would have gone a long way towards securing equity.

      Some independent studios have managed to produce “studio-sized” films by the way, so it is possible. Unfortunately they weren’t successful, for whatever reason. I believe that MonsterMania can break that pattern. (I would, of course!) The European animation community does have the capability to create studio level production values AND focus on the important. It’s about time somebody did.

      I applaud the 18-20 independent animated features that were made in 2012. And I hope that some of those will be seen outside their respective territories. Here’s to even more in 2013. Good luck to us all and long live animated movies!

  • Ant G

    It’s shaping up really well and it doesn’t seem to be the image of “independent feature”, it looks like it’s competing to look just as if a big studio made it.

  • gerben steenks

    “I decided earlier in the year to shutter up my commercial”

    end of an area

    • *

      Yeah – totally depressing… Easily the best studio I’ve worked at – Director/Artist driven ethos with a great creative vibe rather than the glut of ignorant soulless producer driven studios that clot the landscape today in London… There was an infectious enthusiasm for animation at Uli’s – the desire to do good work and better yourself as an artist, and of course, a love and need for good drawing (which sadly seems to haven gone amiss elsewhere…) I live in hope that one day Uli will resurface in whatever form he deems appropriate! :D

  • herathrig

    My opinion.
    It’s possible to make a movie with only a tiny budget. I can site Japanese director “Makoto Shinkai” as an example.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Makoto_Shinkai
    He directed, animated and wrote “Voice of a Distant” all by himself. He did animated it with power Mac G4.
    Maybe Uli Meyer should go indie and do projects like that.

    Good luck Uli Meyer

  • RNDM

    When connections, money or even luck is not in your side wouldn’t it better to make stuff that people will love first then work on a feature? The comments on your animatic are really positive and definitely gives a feel for your film. Working on a short even if it’s just one minute can do so much positive promotion for your project and allows everyone to see it not just a couple of producers in a closed environment. Next thing you know you have a fan base, then T Shirts, merch production etc allowing your pitch to be so much more lucrative to studios because a monetary dialogue is already in use place.

    • Uli Meyer

      Today this would definitely be one way forward. The internet is a very powerful marketing tool and the reason I’ve posted this. Back in 2004 it was a little different, Facebook wasn’t even born yet. Aaargh, has it been nine years already?

  • Uli Meyer

    Dear Tom,
    Thank you for your suggestions and sharing your experiences. I would like to point out that the excerpt of my storyboard/animatic that you can see online is not a pitching tool. We create these for the purpose of constructing a story before any animation begins. It is usually not for public screening but I wanted to share this part of our process. If you search on youtube you can find similar story reel sequences that studios like Pixar and Dreamworks etc create. It is a great way of building your story before making your film. You should try it.
    Best wishes.

    • Tom Hignite

      Hello Uli,
      I am aware that an animatic is usually used for production purposes, but releasing it over a World-wide platform such as Cartoon Brew places it in front of the eyes of many different sets of eyes. Most seeing this site are animation professionals, but some may be in positions of distribution representation or investing. No matter who is viewing you animatic, why would you not want it to be as entertaining as possible? It has nice visuals but those visuals would be so much stronger with a stronger soundtrack.
      I also think $40 mil for a budget seems excessive. There many solid studios who could come aboard and do 90 minutes for under half of that.
      Distributors are more interested in movies under $5 mil. I have budgeted for my 90 minute film in that area and find little compromise in quality. Mine, of course, is 2D which can also save some money.
      Best wishes for completing a great film.
      Blessings,
      Tom Hignite

    • D. Harry

      tom, are you nuts??!! YOU are coming on to a public forum to give Uli Meyer YOUR story advice?? I’m sorry dude, but you are not even in the same league as Uli! You are a home builder who has a fantasy to make an animated feature – cute, and even admirable, but will never live up to all that Uli has accomplished throughout his 30 year animation career!! I just hope the uninformed reader doesnt think that your reasoning as to why those two studios passed on his project is correct – because it isnt!

      • Tom Hignite

        Dear Harry,
        I am not suggesting that am in the same league as Uli or anyone else for that matter. I was a cartoonist decades before I ever built my first home. Like many artists, I spent years in art schools and am an accomplished artist. I will never live up to all that Uli has done, and likewise he will never live up to yours or mine life experiences either.
        As for what a reader may think of my comments, I leave that up to them. I think everyone is entitled to their own opinion and after watching what Uli has done, I believe the story he has shown was not in the same leagues I see in today’s successful animated feature films. Others may feel differently and that is the wonderful thing about a free exchange of ideas.
        For the record, I am not saying that my film is faring any better in this regard, but I do know that entrusting other expert experienced animation professionals to give an un-attached opinion is helpful. This was meant to be a helpful suggestion and was not meant to be insulting to Mr. Meyer.
        I too have posted clips and animators from my film. Please feel free to throw as many corrections and suggestions my way. I consider every opinion as an opportunity to improve my film.
        Blessings,
        Tom Hignite

  • iamsamjackson

    First 40 million is even too much.
    Japan did Captain Harlock for 30 and Appleseed CG, Vexille films for 10 Mil
    Spain did Missing Lynx for 10 Mil as well.
    Zhambezi and Khumba around 20 million
    Plumiferos 700,000 USD
    Sammy’s Adventure cost 23 mil

    Kiara the Brave less than 1 million. Now I know the quality varies from each of these but it gives you an idea of what can be done and with a little skill and imagination you can do something really neat.

    Fact of the matter is that big budget is not required. Uli needs to stop thinking like an old fashioned Hollywood guy. Hwood just teaches people to waste money. Case in point, Napoleon Dynamite cost 400,000 to make as an indie film. Hollywood wanted to do the added 5 min wedding scene at the end and it cost 500,000? A whole movie vs 5 minutes?

    Uli stop thinking like the old status quo. I know you are not fully thinking like them saying you can do it on 40 million but even then it is too much.

    Just get your group of guys together and work on your film. Use every shortcut you can.

    Look, if Jeff Lew can make a 90 minute film in 3 years. MDotStrange is on his 3rd film and David at archondefender is on his 2nd. I’m sure you and 10 other folks could do it in 1 year and given your professional background can make it look better than these guys.

    And I know some folks will say it doesnt look as good and there are haters but they do prove it can be done without the Hollywood budget. I can only imagine what Mdot, David or Jeff could do if they had 20 million to make a film or even 10.

    Uli maybe you can rethink this thing, get a smaller budget and redo your pitch that way. “I’ll make you a 100 million dollar movie for 20″

    The Turtle movie above was made for 20 and made 75 million.

    Instead of the whole having to create a studio to do it use freelancers, teleconference in and make a manufacturing assembly line and go through each step in that manner.

    I hope you can do it. :) You have some nice art.

    Oh and if you are going 2d you can make it cheaper.

    Style can make up a lot where budget and rendering is lost.

    I’m going to write about this on my blog now. bigfootvsnerd :)

  • http://joecorrao.blogspot.com/ Joe Corrao

    Uli has been an inspiration to me for a while…good luck going forward.

  • http://joecorrao.blogspot.com/ Joe Corrao

    One thing I find ironic. You pitch to a big Hollywood studio, and they claim there are already a few films in that genre coming out or in production, they pass I guess cause they think there is a saturated market…then they make 4 sequels of lesser quality to a mediocre idea.

    PS I live in Hollywood and hear the Hollywood babble everyday…

  • AmidAmidi

    This is getting wildly off-topic. No more comments about Tom’s work. The subject here is Uli’s film.

    • d. harry

      More power to Uli!! I hope he goes forward with his short cartoon idea – which can then help launch further successes!

  • zak ryals

    Why is the video private? WTF

  • Usamah

    Hello Uli,
    I wish you success in your project. I am also planning to independently create my own animated feature film. Unlike you, I do not have a vast sea of knowledge and experience, so I have decided to start off small with less ambitious projects, then when the right time comes I’ll accomplish my dreams…God willingly.
    Have you ever considered moving to some country where the cost of living is much cheaper? That may be a good way to minimize your budget, and/or stretch your expenses.
    I’ve been to several 3rd world countries where the cost of living is waaaaaay cheaper than what you would have to deal with in many parts of Europe. I know it would be a sacrifice, but it all depends on how far your willing to push to make your dreams come true.

    Best of Luck!