Breaking the mold

Upstart animation studios in Argentina are pushing beyond service work to forge a new content creation hub, and their plans seem to be working.
September 14, 2011

For the last decade, Argentina has been building a reputation as an affordable animation service hub in Latin America owing to a combination of quick turnaround times, affordable rates and a solid, if small, talent pool.

“We became very cheap, and companies came here because they knew there was an industry of talented people,” says Gaston Cami, VP of international sales and co-productions at Buenos Aires-based Illusion Studios, who remembers the economic crisis at the beginning of the 2000s and the devaluation of the peso that followed. That’s when he figures animation service work took flight, drawing a large chunk of its clientele from the advertising industry, and Argentina grew to be the world’s fourth-largest commercial producer of animation.

Over the last five years, however, a handful of Argentine studios have been breaking out of the service mold and striving to forge international co-productions and drive interest in their own original projects. Expotoons—the four-year-old Argentine animation festival run by Buenos Aires-based Encuadre Studios—has definitely been helping things along. In 2009, the festival hosted Cartoon Connection, funded by MEDIA (the group behind Cartoon Forum), that brought together Argentinean prodcos and other Latin American studios with producers and buyers from Europe. And this year, Expotoons fronted a delegation of eight Argentine animation studios to Annecy supported by the Argentinean Chancellery, Exportar Foundation and the Argentinean Chamber of Audiovisual Exporters (CAEA). In November, Expotoons will hold its fifth edition in Buenos Aires and is currently fielding strong interest from the Asian market.

Illusion’s Cami was among the delegation at Expotoon that got to pitch his studio’s animated feature, Eva, based on the life of the infamous Eva Perrone, to an international committee. Active in CAEA, Cami is working to secure subsidies and tax incentives from the government. “We don’t have the umbrella like Brazil or Mexico, and we’re working to gain support to grow the industry in the coming years,” he says.

Though the animation industry doesn’t have the advantage of significant government support, several Argentine producers, including Illusion Studios, are pushing into the international marketplace and moving ahead with creative business models that are slowly making the country a territory to watch.

Illusion Studios steps it up
With 120 staff members and a roster of animated and live-action TV shows, movies and online content it’s made, Illusion is one of the biggest production companies in Argentina. Four years ago, the prodco secured a cash infusion from a Buenos Aires-based private equity fund and was then able to invest in new animation software and equipment, beef up its animation team and revamp its mandate.

“We realized we could not continue doing one movie a year for the Argentine market,” says Cami. “We wanted to focus on co-producing with the rest of the world.” In 2008, the company partnered with Spain’s Perro Verde Films and Halifax, Canada’s Copernicus Studio to produce the animated film Boogie. And it also teamed up with Fandango Animation in Toronto, Canada to make tween comedy series and feature Valentina. The studio then struck a co-production deal on toon Doodle Bops Rockin’ Roadshow with Canada’s Cookie Jar Entertainment in 2009. (Canada handled pre-production and sent the animation work to Illusion.)

The studio has also had its hands full producing animated features over the last four years, including Gaturro, a co-production with studios in India and Mexico. The series is based on a well-known Argentine character and may also become a TV series. Next up is Don Gato, which features the lead character from 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoon Top Cat and will be ready for theatrical release in September.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have any government help for TV series in Argentina,” says Cami. So putting money into a show like Doodlebops required private investment. Illusion, however, is able to set up 90% of its slate as co-productions, which Cami says includes in-house generated projects, as well as investing in content like Don Gato and negotiating revenue-sharing deals.

Diversification is sustaining that level of investment, which is why Illusion has an advertising arm as well as live-action co-productions in the works that include Sueña Conmigo (Dream With Me), a tween telenovella for Nickelodeon and Televisa, and Peter Punk, a 26 x half-hour series for Disney.

Illusion is also about to stretch its remit by entering into broadcasting with a daily kids programming block slated to air between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. on Argentina’s free-TV channel America 2. Launching at MIP Jr. this month, Cami says the block will be a mix of Illusion’s original series and acquisitions that target kids ages four to nine. It already includes Pocoyo, Plazo Sésamo, Miss Spider, The Backyardigans, Johnny Test, Elmo, Bernard and The Doodlebops. And Illusion is producing 103 x three-minute eps for an original channel-branded show.

Infusing Hollywood values with local flair
“We are working with the government to make them understand that this is an industry with a lot of potential, but we need the support system to make it grow,” says Buenos Aires-based producer Diego Rosner. Last year his company L’Orange Gutan produced a mixed-media pilot that he took to Annecy. Spain’s Elastic Rights has come on-board as an international distributor, and Rosner says he’s on the brink of teaming up with co-pro partners in Canada and France to do part of the 3D work, as well as a studio in Asia to take on the heavy animation load.

“When you’re producing a series of more than 500 minutes, you have to optimize the process,” says Rosner. “And having a limited talent pool, we don’t want to commit to producing the whole thing in Argentina with that kind of schedule,” he adds.
Besides, Rosner’s got a big chunk of that pool locked up in production of an animated, stereoscopic 3D feature film being produced by his animation studio Catmandu. (At more than 120 employees, Catmandu has imported DreamWorks and Pixar alumni to lead operations as senior creatives, as well as animators from Spain, Italy, Colombia, the US, the UK and a few Argentine ex-pats, who were working in New Zealand.) It’s currently making headlines in industry trades leading up to the 2012 release of the biggest film project underway in Latin America. Metegol (Foosball 3D) is the creation of Argentine Juan Jose Campanella, who rose to fame last year when his film The Secret of Their Eyes won the Academy Award for best foreign film, and Despicable Me exec producer Sergio Pablo is serving as the animation supervisor.

Backed by Spain’s Antena 3 Films and media giant Prisa, the project has a budget of approximately US$14 million, with Argentinean government subsidies amounting to just 3.5% of that total. Besides private investment and co-production subsidies from Spain, Catmandu has also cut deals with Hewlett-Packard and Intel, which are sponsoring all the equipment used to produce the movie.

Rosner is hoping this film will help put Argentina on the map and he’s stacking the deck in his favor as much as possible. Catmandu’s wrangled the best talent it could afford to produce a Hollywood-level feature and is using those resources in a way that will make it easier to attract funding from American and other global partners—or at least that’s the goal.

“Also, after producing a movie like this, we can sit down with the government and talk about ways to organize more classes and courses and more tools to nurture quality talent,” says Rosner.

Opening international doors
Argentina’s Exim Licensing is also in the process of building up an animation arm to co-exist with its already strong licensing and live-event production businesses in Latin America. (The company has a 10-year-old  HQ in Miami, Florida, and operates with international clients in US dollars.) This year, however, Exim entered the content world for the first time via a co-production with Leda Films and Mondo TV Spain. Animated core-kids series BondiBand has been sold to broadcasters in Latin America, including Disney XD, Banderiantes in Brazil and Televisa, and more negotiations are underway with European broadcasters. Keeping with Exim’s expertise, it has extensive plans for a BondiBand merch program and is developing a live tour to coincide with the series’ rollout.

Founder and CEO Elias Hofman explains that the series is being fully produced at Exim’s flagship Argentine animation studio, with the co-producers playing strictly financial roles.

“Seeing the growth of the industry is opening more doors for co-productions, and the incentives are bigger when they are international co-pros,” says Hofman. Argentina, he contends, is an ideas factory, and like Rosner and Cami, he agrees that more raw talent is needed in the territory to sustain more original work in animated series and films.

Next up, Hofman says Exim is planning to work with a Canadian company “with nice incentives from Canada” on a new series, and will also consider farming out the bulk of the animation work to a studio in India.

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