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This year, two of the five Oscar-nominated animated features—My Life As A Zucchini and The Red Turtle—are European co-productions. That should hardly be a surprise. European feature animation is currently booming, and has plenty of room for growth in the coming years.

A key event for getting perspective on what’s happening in European long-form animation is Cartoon Movie, set to take place next month in Bordeaux, France between March 8 and 10. Fifty-five animated projects have been selected to be presented at the upcoming edition.

Cartoon Movie presents films in various stages of the production cycle, from concept and development through production, and even fully-completed films. The pitching and co-production forum, now in its 19th year, is where European producers often find financing, co-producers and distributors for features. Over 265 animated films that have been pitched at Cartoon Movie over the years have secured financing and release.

To understand Cartoon Movie, one has to first understand the key financial distinction between American and European animated features. In the U.S., most of the major animated films (Laika being the notable exception) are produced within a studio system, where one of the major entertainment corporations will put up all the money to make a film. European financing is less straightforward; film budgets are usually cobbled together from a complicated system of co-productions where different producers, distributors, and broadcasters (often in different countries) each put up a portion of the budget.

Both systems have advantages and drawbacks, but the key advantage to the European system is that there is more opportunity for variety in animated filmmaking. Average European budgets are a tiny fraction of average American animated features, which not only allows for more films to be made, but also allows producers to take risks without the looming fear of failure. For example, the Oscar-nominated My Life As A Zucchini, a Swiss-French co-production cost just US$8 million, whereas Disney’s Zootopia cost $150 million. While Zucchini won’t ever come close to matching the gross of Zootopia, at 1/19th the cost, it doesn’t need to put up blockbuster grosses to make back its money.

For a long time, European producers tried to replicate American-style animated features on European budgets, which resulted in films that were derivative and subpar. But that formula has begun to change in the last decade, and increasingly, European producers are making films that have unique graphic styles and content designed from the ground-up for lower budgets.

As part of that trend, producers are also exploring thematic concepts and stories that go beyond family-friendly fare typically associated with animation. These trends are fully evident among Cartoon Movie’s selections this year, where around one-third of the 55 projects are targeted at teen and adult audiences.

Here’s a few of the mature animation projects that have caught our attention at the upcoming pitching event:

Awakening Beauty

Awakening BeautyA 2D Spanish animated feature directed by Manuel H. Martin and produced by La Ciaqueta, the project is about a woman in an abusive relationship who takes matters into her own hands:

The typical “girl meets boy” story, except here the boy asks the girl to abandon her studies, forces her to always be by his side, beats her, and finally, makes her sign a document ensuring they will stay together despite his abuses. After eleven years of terrible psychological and physical abuses, one night the girl gathers the strength and courage to take her four children and leave her husband. Homeless and unemployed, Bella starts again. This is the end of the story for most abused women, but it is just the beginning for Bella who decides to create a foundation to help other women escape abuse. An adventure that confronts a society that treats abused women as victims forever.

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles

Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the TurtlesSpanish film legend Luis Buñuel takes center stage in this 2D animated feature directed by Salvador Simó. Manuel Cristobal, producer of another recently successful Spanish animated feature, Wrinkles, is also on board. The film is based on the making of Buñuel 1932 documentary short Land Without Bread, and the censorship of the film that followed. The feature has been pre-bought by the Spanish public broadcaster RTVE:

1930, Paris, The Golden Age of film is a scandal and Luis Buñuel who thought he was destined for stardom of surrealism is left with nothing. He is offered a documentary on one of the poorest areas in Spain, Las Hurdes, but he has no money. His friend, the sculptor Ramón Acín buys a lottery ticket with the promise that he will pay for the film, he wins and keeps his promise. The harshness of Las Hurdes and the extreme misery of its people affect Buñuel deeply. Reality, memories of his childhood, Salvador Dalí and dreams are mixed in his mind, endangering the film and his friendship with Ramón. From there will come the Buñuel of the future. But what is left on the way? How much that step costs?

The Red Jungle
The Red JungleDirected by Juan Lozano and Zoltan Horvath, the 2D/3D animated drama is a French-Swiss co-production based on the true-life story of the 2008 death of FARC guerrilla leader Raúl Reyes:

On March 1st 2008, Commander Raúl Reyes, number 2 of the FARC, died in the jungle under the ton of bombs dropped by the CIA and the Colombian army. Along with his corpse, the soldiers retrieved his computers: ten years of letters written by the man in charge of negotiating the release of a hundred of hostages who also acted as the head of foreign affairs of the oldest communist guerrilla in the world. An amazing testimony where meet politicians, journalists, arms dealers, diplomats, hitmen, his close relations and even his kids. “The Red Jungle” delves into the mindset of this man who rules the FARC with an iron fist, as the revolutionary utopia was slowly turning into a nightmare.

My Sunny Maad

My Sunny MaadCelebrated Czech animator Michaela Pavlátová, winner of the Annecy Cristal for Tram and Academy Award-nominated for Reci, Reci, Reci…, is developing her feature debut, My Sunny Maad. The Afghanistan-set film is a co-production between France’s Sacrebleu Productions and the Czech Republic’s Negativ:

Welcome to Kabul: one family, countless secrets. When Herra, a Czech woman, falls in love with Nazir, an Afghan, she has no idea about the life that awaits her in post-Taliban Afghanistan, nor about the family she is about to join. A grandfather who is a feminist, an adopted young boy who astounds with his intellect, and Freshta, who will do anything to run away from her abusive husband. Like the other women in the family, Herra wears a burka and hides in a closet when guests arrive. She soon starts a new job with an American woman, Heidi, who has little understanding of the way women live in Afghanistan, and still less that not everybody wants to be saved by Westerners.

Super Vinamotor

Super VinamotorStéphanie Lansaque and François Leroy, whose southeast Asia-set short Cafe Froid is currently nominated for a Cesar, return to the region for Super Vinamotor, a mixed-media project that uses 2D, 3D, and live-action. France’s Je Suis Bien Content is producing:

Kim, a young gangster unfairly accused of treason, is forced to flee Saigon and its Chinese mafia. Hurt and confused, he is rescued by a weird duo: Thao, a one-legged old gambler and his granddaughter Lan. Through the small roads of the Mekong Delta, the trio heads to Cambodia…

The Siren

The SirenSepideh Farsi, an Iranian filmmaker based in France, moves from live-action fiction and documentary into animation with The Siren, a co-production between France’s Les Films d’Ici and Belgium’s Lunanime. The 2D/3D film, which touches on themes of political resistance, also presented at last year’s Cartoon Movie. (Films can be presented multiple times at the forum, based on what stage of production it’s in.) Here is the synopsis:

November 1980. Southern Iran. We are at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war. Abadan, the capital of the Iranian petrol industry resists the repeated assaults of the Iraqi army, but is soon under full siege. Omid, a 14-year-old boy, has stayed back in the city, with his grandfather, waiting for his elder brother to come back from the frontline. Along with Omid, we discover several other uncommon characters, each one having stayed for a personal reason. Each one resisting in his own way. But as the Iraqi siege of the city hardens, Omid has to quickly find a way to save those he loves.

A full list of projects that will be pitched next month at Cartoon Movie, as well as information on how to attend, can be found on the Cartoon Movie web site. Cartoon Brew will attend and report from Cartoon Movie next month.