At the start of the year, Ruth Fielding had a busy schedule planned for Lupus Films’ newest 2D-animated special, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. After it premiered on UK broadcaster Channel 4 in December 2019, the 24-minute hand-drawn animated family film was slated to screen at nearly 50 festivals worldwide, 10 of which were Oscar-qualifiers. Fielding, joint managing director of the UK prodco, had planned to attend at least a handful alongside director Robin Shaw for audience Q&As and networking meetings.
She had her eye on the Oscars, targeting feeder festivals like Annecy and Tribeca. It was a strategy Lupus had used before with animated feature Ethel and Ernest (Official Annecy Selection 2017) and animated short We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. But this year felt like it was their year.
Then the pandemic hit. On March 5, Fielding got an email from Italy’s Cartoons on the Bay saying the April festival was being postponed until December. A week later, Animation Dingle in Ireland informed her that it was cancelling its 2020 March edition. Tribeca Film Festival,
Minneapolis International Film Festival, Chile Monos and Prix Jeunesse all followed suit.
One after another, the postponements and cancellations rolled in. And they’re still coming.
“Week by week, we’re getting notifications saying, ‘Sorry, we’re cancelled,’ or ‘Sorry, we’re going online—are you still happy for your film to be shown?’ Of course we are, because [we've] paid the submission fee and in some cases we’ve already sent them materials,” says Fielding. “It’s just that we can’t go, and a lot of our work comes from networking at festivals—particularly the hand-drawn style that we specialize in.”
Financially, Lupus has sunk “a few thousand pounds” into festivals. (Smaller events like Prix Jeunesse and Cinekid offer free submissions, whereas applying to Tribeca costs between US$300 and US$500.) None of the events have offered refunds, instead rolling fees over to next year’s festival or to digital editions.
Lupus Films isn’t alone. Festivals are a route that many production companies, studios, directors and even students take to get their newest work out there. Not only are they a creative outlet, but they draw in buyers who might not see the work otherwise, opening doors for the content to be picked up and turned into a larger feature or TV series. There are some financial upsides as well, as many festivals handle the language dubbing at no cost. But all of those benefits have evaporated, thanks to COVID-19, and the ramifications of the festival standstill will likely impact 2021 projects as well. And festival digitization plans may not be enough to support the losses producers are feeling.
Cast your mind back to the 2019 Oscars. It was the first ceremony in three decades to be held without a host. A superhero movie was nominated for Best Picture. And Olivia Colman won Best Actress. But for Cartoon Saloon, it was a turning point. The small Irish studio was up for its first Academy Award in the Animated Short category for Late Afternoon (pictured, above). The nomination for this simple 2D-animated short, directed by Louise Bagnall and produced by Nuria Blanco, came on the heels of a successful festival run.
The film premiered at Tribeca in New York, where it won Best Animated Short. “[Just being] selected for Tribeca was a boon,” says Blanco, who works with Cartoon Saloon as a producer. “The moment you are selected for a big festival, all the others start to also show interest.”
Following its Oscar nomination, Late Afternoon fielded festival requests throughout 2018 and 2019. Cartoon Saloon has since recouped a bit of the financial cost, which isn’t typical for this type of project, says Blanco—though she isn’t sure how much money the company has made.
But it wasn’t just the festival ripple effect that Blanco says would be difficult to replicate online. At the time, the prodco was small, best known for its preschool series Puffin Rock on Nick Jr. and Netflix. Around the time Late Afternoon took off, Cartoon Saloon secured a deal with Apple for feature film Wolfwalkers and landed a co-pro project, Dorg van Dango, with WildBrain for Nickelodeon.
For her part, Blanco is producing Cartoon Saloon’s Silly Sundays, which she pitched at Cartoon Forum in 2018. The TV series is now in late-stage development and is in talks with a broadcast partner. Blanco thanks the festival circuit for this success, as well as the emotional highs she got to experience seeing her work come to life.
“It’s so amazing when you can see your film on the big screen with an audience,” says Blanco. “It’s sad to have that taken away from you as a filmmaker.”
For Lupus, this fallout is already having a ripple effect. From writing to delivery, The Tiger Who Came to Tea took three years to put together. Fielding was particularly excited to see the film’s hand-drawn aesthetic on the big screen, as well as see people’s reactions during this year’s circuit.
The short’s biggest cancellation to date was Annecy International Animation Film Festival. Originally scheduled for June, the festival has postponed its 60th anniversary until next year, and instead will do all screenings digitally. Lupus’s short had been chosen as one of the few Official Annecy 2020 Selections in the TV Film category this year.
But Fielding isn’t convinced that the usual crowd of more than 12,000 people will flock online to watch.
“I’m not sure that I would sit down in my spare bedroom and see a whole load of films some afternoon,” she says. “It’s just not the same as being in a beautiful town like Annecy—going to screenings, and coming out and having a glass of rosé.” And if replicating the experience is difficult, gauging digital attendance will likely be impossible: Thus far, festivals remain mum on actual viewership data. And even if the online showings draw in big numbers, Fielding notes that Tiger’s director Shaw will likely lose out on future work because he won’t introduce the film or do Q&As afterwards, a custom at most film festivals. These speaking opportunities might not seem like a big deal, but they give directors a chance to familiarize audiences with their faces.
“They’re introducing their career, looking for their next film,” says Fielding. “For us, we’re not getting the opportunity to meet potential co-producers, show the film to distributors and buyers, [and have] serendipitous meetings.”
Festivals have also previously offered Lupus a way to bring its TV specials to different countries and lock in broadcasters in regions that might not otherwise look at the project. Fielding says she’s secured many sales that way for past animated projects, and was hoping to do the same for The Tiger Who Came to Tea. Beyond access, festivals usually dub and sub a film into the local language at no additional cost, which drops Lupus’s price if it’s able to secure a sale in that region. Typically, this saves the prodco thousands of dollars, says Fielding.
Now, as she waits to see just how badly the fallout from COVID-19 affects her film, Fielding also has an eye on future festivals, and she doesn’t like her odds. ore than 3,000 films were submitted to Annecy in 2019. If those numbers held or increased in 2020, next year’s numbers are likely to see a sharp uptick as films are rolled over— some by choice, and some by necessity—creating a double cohort. Dublin-based JAM Media had been planning for some time to premiere a new project during the 2021 festival circuit. The 10-minute, CG-animated short Candlelight is in the storyboard stage after receiving funding from BFI and Northern Ireland Screen.
But now, JAM will have to compete with everyone from the 2020 festival circuit who withheld their projects, as well as the prodcos that always planned to submit their work for the 2021 circuit, and that’s not to mention creators who will undoubtedly be using the COVID-19 downtime to finalize projects or start new ones, says studio managing director Richard Gordon. “The competition will be steeper and tougher.”
While holding off and waiting until 2022 may be a plan for some, Gordon says technology is not on their side. “CG tends to fade, and we don’t want it sitting on a shelf for a couple of years.” With an 18- to 24-month turnaround, plenty of other producers are in a similar predicament, he adds. Once you’ve got the ball rolling on a project, it’s difficult to take a break without killing it completely.
Beyond showcasing the work, there’s an additional loss from the standstill for companies like JAM, which looks to festivals to help feed its development pipeline. JAM picked up its Nick Jr. UK show Becca’s Bunch (called Fear of Flying, at the time) at Galway Film Festival and adapted it into a full-fledged mixed-media series. The show has since been picked up in the US (Nick Jr.), Canada (CBC Kids), France (France Télévisions) and Australia (ABC Kids). Without the showcases, finding new ideas becomes a challenge.
It’s hard to quantify the exact cost of the COVID-19 ripple effect—but a stunted or digital circuit means less exposure for directors. It means fewer networking opportunities for prodcos like Lupus. It means reduced potential for winning coveted awards, like the ones that propelled Cartoon Saloon. It represents sunken costs that may never pay out, but also a stunted pipeline that may never replenish for companies like JAM. And it’s not just this year’s crop of projects that will suffer; next year’s doublecohort will likely mean fewer opportunities then as well.
The fallout from the pandemic will keep spreading, and digital alternatives aren’t going to solve the challenges.
“A lot of festivals are saying they’re going to postpone by another year…then will we be selected?” asks Lupus’s Fielding. “Overall, we just feel a bit robbed.”