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Industry Report: Animation

Producing an Animated Feature Film - Case Study: Niko and the Way to the Stars


- Finnish producer Petteri Pasanen explained the strategy for finding effective coproduction partners. It took 3 years and a half to develop and finance the film (slightly over 6M€, the most expensive Finnish film ever) and 16 months to produce it. "In Finland there were just a few financiers who believed in us."

Since 2002 Petteri Pasanen has worked at animation studio Anima Vitae which strongest global competitive edge is the world´s fastest production pipeline for topical series. Petteri is a shareholder and CEO at Anima. Petteri has produced a Cannes Prix du Jury winner Pizza Passionata (2001). He is also producer of Niko - The Way to the Stars that won Finnish Oscars for best screenplay and best movie this year.

After the production of Niko, your first feature film, is your company well known in the market?
A good sign that our company is now known is that Niko was one of the nominees for the European Academic Awards.

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Anima has been founded in 2000 in Helsinki; there are now more than 40 permanent employees. In 2002 we decided to expand our network to Europe and in 2005 to Asia and the USA. Our strongest competitive advantage is the world’s fastest production pipeline. We have three pipelines: one for a weekly series, one for features and one for commercials. Before Niko we have done service works and commercials but our own production started pretty much with Niko in 2004.

We set up a goal for us in 2003 that we will have a feature film in animation in years to come. We didn’t know how many years it would take, but we did it.

When do you start working in animation?
I started to study in European Animation Business School in Lübeck, a very good programme. Then I attended the Cartoon Forum, the Cartoon Movie and all Cartoon Masters in 2003 and 2004. I found out that this is not a market, this is a family. It was very nice to discover this family, because I was coming from live action and this community is really different compared to live action.

In 2003 there was a rumour in Finland that someone had made a great Finnair commercial in London. And in Anima we though, “yeah, it’s great! but it’s done in Finland in our studio”. In that time it was very hard to tell anyone that we could do this kind of animation in our house. The first one to hooked up with this reindeer commercial was our first partner, Hannu Tuomainen.

What kind of genre is Niko?
The film is a family movie because it was the easiest genre to finance. It seemed to be some market for that in 2005.

When did you started to look for partners and financers for your project?
In 2005 Hannu bought some plastic antlers for Berlin and we started to wear those in every financing occasion where we were, even in the Cartoon Movie 2005. A. Film in Denmark was the first company to really take a contact. A. Film was already working with the Irish company Magma, and we decided to work with them as well. Magma was working with Ulysses Films in Germany, and also Ulysses came on board.

What has been your strategy in finding co-production partners?
The strategy is pretty simple. You have to take time to do your homework, we started in 2003. We wanted to seek long-term partners because it takes such a long time to get known well, so we thought it was a waste of time to have partners for just one project.

How much was the estimated budget of the film?
The budget was 6 millions. In Finland the average budget is 1.5 to 2 millions, and before us there were no feature animation film made in Finland. It was very hard to be credible. That was the reason why we didn’t tell immediately people the right budget. At the end we had 22 financiers!

How long it took to develop the film and put together the financing?
It took something like 3 ½ years or 4 years. It felt very long, but I know that it wasn’t that long; it can take a lot more, like 5, 6 or 7 years. The production took 16 months.

In Cannes 2005 we made some first presentations to sales agents, but no one was interested.

We went to Cartoon Movie in 2006. We had a show with the blinking antlers, we got attention and we could negotiate with five sales agents.

In Cannes Festival 2006 Telepool made us a very good offer. Obviously we were right because they sold the movie to more than 100 countries!

How you went about raising the finance? Was it smooth?
No, in Finland there were just a few financiers who believed in us. It take too many years.

Was the film financed before the start of the production?
I have a live action background. In live action there is a financing rule number 1: never start until fully financed, because that’s the way you get bankrupted.

What creative materials did you need to convince partners?
We started with the synopsis and a studio showreel. We wanted to show that we were good enough to produce a feature film within Anima.

All the development phase was made in Finland. The postproduction was done in Ireland and Germany.

How many people worked in the script and how many drafts did you wrote?
The first and second draft were written by Hanno. Then we thought that we would find out some American scriptwriter who could made the third version. It was a big mistake. He gave us something, but I won’t even mention his name, because he’s Hollywood-based, and we had a contract that we won’t talk about him and he won’t talk about us. Finally Hanno wrote the 4th draft and we were back in business. The script changed during the production. For example, in the script stage, we decided not to have scenes with water, because it’s quite hard. In the film there are scenes with water… It seemed every decision we made, we never kept it.

There was no 3D picture tradition in Finland at that time and our art director wanted to start with clay. It was very good because he did characters with clay and it was easy for modellers to understand what he was trying to do.

Did you find difficulties during the production phase?
We needed to find a common language. For example to define among the partners the word “scene” and “sequence”.

In our studio we don’t draw storyboards and it was a big surprise for the rest of the team. We realise the storyboard directly in 3D. This 3D storyboard is a very important part of polishing the script.

The quantity of hardware was approximately 20 times smaller than in large international productions.

Did delivery date put pressure on the production?
We needed to have the October 2008 premier in Finland. Nobody wants to see a Christmas movie in February. It was good pressure because we had a deadline.

Did you start marketing during the production?
Yes, in Finland we thought we had to start marketing because is a family genre and parents need to know that it’s a good safe story, so we started in theatres in 2007.

Did we learn anything?
We should challenge the old financing system. With the co-production system you can lose up to 30% of your budget just because of the work split.

Then the approving system, even though it really made our movie better, it takes ages. You have lots of Skype conferences with ten people or more, trying to say something about something and you speak for hours... I’m not a big fan of this old financing system, I’m really looking for something else.

Another lesson learnt is that we need to have separate units and budgets for production and marketing material. Our partners did not believe in this movie early enough, so it meant for example that premiers are postponed. With a marketing budget, you can avoid this kind of problems.

Finally: if you have done your homework, trust it. Do not listen too much to other people if you really believe in what you do.

Do you think family genre reached a saturation point?
There are negative signs: most of the European movies don’t get distributed. In our studio we want to explore the teenage and adult animation markets. We do not want to be depending too heavily on family market.

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