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CARTOON BUSINESS 2023

Iryna Kostyuk and Tetiana Ruban • Producer, FILM.UA Group/Animagrad Studio, and CEO, Nerd Licensing Agency

“The project’s uniqueness lies also in its promotion and export of Ukrainian culture, values and traditions”

by 

- At Cartoon Business, the two reps spoke about the ground-breaking success of Mavka. The Forest Song in Ukraine and internationally

Iryna Kostyuk and Tetiana Ruban • Producer, FILM.UA Group/Animagrad Studio, and CEO, Nerd Licensing Agency
Iryna Kostyuk (left) and Tetiana Ruban (right)

At Las Palmas de Gran Canaria’s Cartoon Business (14-16 November), Iryna Kostyuk and Tetiana Ruban delved into the successful case study of Ukrainian animation hit Mavka. The Forest Song. Kostyuk is a producer for Animagrad Studio, whilst Ruban is CEO of the Nerd Licensing Agency. They both work for FILM.UA Group, Eastern Europe’s largest media conglomerate.

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Cineuropa: Why did you embark on making Mavka. The Forest Song? Could you tell us something about the production process?
Iryna Kostyuk: The idea of exploring a well-known and beloved Ukrainian female character from myths and legends — as well as from classic literature — through the universal language of animation came about in 2014, when we realised there was rising demand among Ukrainian youth for a local animated hero. That’s when we started development and began searching for the right visual language and style, as well as the perfect character, while also drafting a script and reinventing the classic story into a plot suitable for family audiences and kids. In 2017, we launched a first B2B teaser and Mavka had become the first ever Ukrainian project to be pitched at Bordeaux’s Cartoon Movie. And that’s how our international journey started. 

Next, a long, complicated production process began. We had to go through all the challenges of the COVID times. At the final stage, and when the release date had already been set, Russia’s full scale invasion started. The team had to finish the picture literally in shelters and under occupation. We put together a video about this.

When we delivered the movie — on schedule, as it was established by our international deals — it was hard to decide whether we should release it in wartime, provided that only half of Ukrainian theaters were operating, and the other half were either being destroyed, in occupied territories, or had simply gone out of business. Moreover, 10 million of our target audiences made up of mums and kids were displaced abroad and shows were constantly interrupted by air raids and power outages. But it turned out that this was exactly the time when local and international audiences needed Mavka the most.

What about your main milestones in terms of distribution? What do you think made it so successful in Ukraine and internationally?
IK: Mavka is the first Ukrainian film ever to be released so widely. It was released in 148 countries, and dubbed into 32 languages. It reached the top spots at the local box-offices everywhere, and especially among the animated and family flicks. 

Internationally, Mavka received stellar reviews and recorded impressive box office results, becoming one of the most successful indie films of 2023. In France, it claimed the top spot among the week’s newcomers, ranked as the second best opening of the year, and ultimately being among the top 5 highest-grossing movies in its premiere week. In Italy, it stands as the fifth highest-grossing animated film of 2023, spending five weeks in the top 3. In Portugal, Mavka had the best opening for an animated film in 2023, and the second best opening among animated films. The domestic release literally rescued the local industry, and broke all the national records, becoming the highest grossing Ukrainian film of all times and the best animation release ever, topping all the major studio releases. Mavka was the third highest grossing release in Ukraine, coming after Spider-Man: No Way Home and Avatar: The Way of Water. The project’s uniqueness lies not only in its compelling narrative but also in its promotion and export of Ukrainian culture, values and traditions, while also raising awareness about ecological issues.

What type of marketing and distribution strategy did you implement?
Tetiana Ruban:
From the very beginning, Mavka was planned not just as a single movie but as an entire universe which could be exploited ‘multiplatform’ and enhance the brand’s crossmedia potential.

The viral promo kicked off with the first teaser in 2017. Then, we used as many promotional tools as possible spanning digital [e.g. content for social media and targeted advertising), PR [media coverage, bloggers, creative collaborations and social projects] and below-the-line [e.g. presentations and special screenings]. We had a number of big Ukrainian companies licensing our brand years prior to the film’s release, which proves its awareness and popularity locally. To date, we have more than 30 collaborations with more than 350 stock keeping units active in different spheres such as jewellery, snacks, beauty, clothing, toys, publishing, accessories, home decorations and supplies for children’s study and creativity.

We engaged the top Ukrainian media celebrities to work on dubbing and scoring the songs “Song of the Wind” and “The Forest Song.” It’s also quite unique that partners released a Ukrainian version of the film along with the local one, and that happened owing to the millions of refugees spread all over the world. For our international releases, we involved embassies, asking them to gather refugees, and helped distributors with digital campaigns.  

What’s next for Mavka and her fans? 
TR: The Mavka Stage dancing has already travelled the country and Mavka already has her offline themed “Residence” in the heart of Kyiv, with a partner agency organising themed parties for kids around the country. 

The consumer product programme is flourishing and fans can enjoy plenty of Mavka goods pretty much everywhere they go for leisure. And more exciting developments lie ahead for Mavka and her dedicated fans: we’re delighted to announce the expansion of her universe through an upcoming TV series, marking a significant collaboration with French studio TeamTo. Currently in its early stages, this endeavour represents a new chapter for the tale of the Forest Guardian.

The series will introduce fresh, engaging characters, including Mavka’s friend Tumblewind and the forest creature Chuhai, both deeply rooted in Ukrainian mythology. It will showcase a diverse array of characters, emphasising cultural and ethnic diversity to resonate within a broad audience. In terms of licensing, our strategic plan involves a substantial expansion of our reach, with a particular focus on children aged 6-11, aligning seamlessly with the target audience for the series.

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