At Annecy this year, I watched a panel discussion about the animation industry’s ecological footprint. Studio representatives enumerated the green measures their companies have adopted, many of which are now familiar, almost banal: recycling hardware, encouraging commutes by bike, and so on.
One panelist caught my attention with a different kind of policy. Delphine Maury, of France’s Tant Mieux Prod, declared that she doesn’t want her upcoming kids’ series Tobie Lolness (Toby Alone) to have any merchandising. “We don’t want all these objects to end [up] in the ocean or poor countries as garbage,” she said.
This kind of initiative is rare in the industry, but it fits the project like a glove. Based on a bestselling two-part novel by Timothée de Fombelle, Tobie Lolness is a paean to a pre-industrial past. It tells the story of a tiny forest-dwelling boy and a greedy man who covets the sap of his tree, hoping to use it to power his machines.
Maury, who is currently discussing the no-merchandising policy with her production partners, wants to go one further. To tie into the series, her team is developing a program to get viewers to plant trees. Children will be shown how to foster a forest where they live, and take part in related workshops. Parents will be encouraged to donate the money they would have spent on merchandising to the program. Maury is in discussions to launch a pilot project in Annecy by 2023.
How did Maury come up with this plan, and what does it mean in practice? We spoke to her to find out …
Cartoon Brew: Why do you want to ban all merchandising for Tobie Lolness? Did you consider having merchandising and just avoiding pollutant materials like plastic?
Delphine Maury: When you work for so long on a project that is so deeply rooted in our plant world, continuing the life of the series in its classic commercial logic made me wonder. I decided, somewhat radically, that there would be no merchandising on Tobie.
I took our partners with me towards a deliberate choice of solidarity: to switch the money the parents are willing to spend on plastic toys, caps, figurines, or costumes to forests, trees, and plants, which the children can plant.
The idea is to address the various demands of cities and rural areas in terms of trees. That’s why we are in contact with people who create urban forests and others who are involved with agroforestry. We also want to create some sanctuary sites where people and families can plant trees.
Is it the first time you have decided to do this? Are you aware of this no-merchandising policy ever being tried on another project?
Yes, this is the first and maybe the last time for Tant Mieux Prod, but I am convinced this is what the world and the kids ask for [Maury links to this petition, started by two children, to get Burger King and McDonald’s to stop selling plastic toys]. Tobie is about a non-industrial society in which one man decides to avoid progress for the good of all. This idea is so obvious for me, which makes me think there must be others thinking exactly the same way.
How difficult has it been to convince the other stakeholders to agree to the policy?
For the moment it has been easy. The idea is so relevant to the story of the book and to this moment we are living through on Earth. The difficult part is to invent a good structure to implement this idea. To plant a tree is exactly like having a child, it requires real involvement for years.
How much revenue from merchandising would you normally expect with a show like this?
I really don’t know and that’s the good thing about it! Our small company doesn’t even know what it is to earn big money, so it is easier to renounce it! The dream would be to share the money it could make equally with professionals involved.
Tobie Lolness is based on a popular children’s novel. Does this mean there has never been any merchandising related to the book either?
To my knowledge, there is not. We really have to finish our discussions with our partners. Gallimard [which publishes de Fombelle’s books] are very charmed by our initiative, but they are publishers, and we need to find common ground around the books that they will legitimately want to publish. So I still don’t know to what extent we can achieve this goal.
Will you try to avoid merchandising on future projects?
We have never had any before — it isn’t easy to think of merchandising for poetry adaptations. [Tant Mieux Prod has produced several series of short films inspired by French poets, collectively known as Fresh out of School.] I don’t think our way of thinking revolves around producing projects that could generate toys.
At Annecy, you spoke on a panel about the animation industry and climate change. What else can producers and studios do to reduce their impact on the environment?
They do a lot, everyone in their own way, I am sure of it. It is impossible to work for children without trying to give them hope for the future. We talk about this by choosing a no-merchandising approach.
We all have to create something new, and some surprising things are on their way, for sure! I have heard about a lot of projects initiated by collectives of young animation workers who dream of setting up animation studios in the countryside, in communal spaces where they’d combine independent living with animation!
Three or four years ago, we partnered with [environmental projects accelerator] Open Lande to organize a two-day conference about ecological challenges that the world of animation faces.
As I saw it, the upshot (apart from the technological aspects) was the need to think of new narratives, and especially to gauge the impact of all the post-apocalyptic series that come out nowadays — it’s almost like they’re thumbing their noses at the disasters to come, without providing much nourishment to those who will have to live through this “collapse.”
How do we think about the world of tomorrow and speak about it to children without sending them into complete despair?
“Tobie Lolness” will be broadcast by in France by France Télévisions and ZDF in late 2023. No U.S. broadcaster is currently attached.
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