Sunday, January 04, 2009

Trade Shows and Festivals

I no longer read comics as I once did, but I do keep an eye on the comics industry, mainly to give me a basis for comparison when I look at the animation industry.

The comics field has long been the scene of conventions in various cities. They've been going on consistently since the 1960s in cities of various sizes. I've personally attended conventions in four different cities over the years and I haven't scratched the surface.

While there is some industry business transacted at these conventions - mostly because they serve as a gathering place for professionals - their real audience is comics fans. They come to find items to buy, pick up news about what's happening next at their favorite companies or in their favourite titles. Finally, they come to meet the professionals. Conventions regularly advertise their guests as a draw for pulling in attendees. Guests will sign their work and perhaps do sketches. It's the opportunity for fans to have personal contact with people whose work they admire; it allows them to feel closer to the work.

These days, you can purchase just about any item you're looking for on the internet. In the past, news about the comics industry was limited to print publications that came out monthly or less frequently; these days, there are several comics news sites that are updated at least daily. In these areas, conventions don't offer the opportunities that they used to, but where they still succeed is in the social aspects of being a comics fan. The chance to hang out with people who share one's interests and the chance to meet the professionals that produce favourite work is enough reason to attend.

The idea of the comics convention has succeeded beyond the field of comics. Comicon International in San Diego has become a magnet for Hollywood. They use the gathering of fans to promote their forthcoming projects and film professionals are trotted out for personal appearances to help promote the projects.

The nearest thing the film industry has to this is the film festival. People attend to see films that are not yet released (or may not get a general release) as well as have the opportunity to see and hear film professionals speak about their work.

The animation festival I'm most familiar with is the Ottawa International Animation Festival, though I attended an animation festival at New York University many years ago. I haven't attended Annecy, Zagreb, Hiroshima or any of the festivals that occur on the North American west coast. I'm curious to know, though, if these festivals tend to be closer to trade shows rather than for general audiences. My impression (which is unscientific), is that the Ottawa festival caters more to professionals and animation students than general audiences. I think the programs that pull in the largest number of people outside the industry are the screenings for children. Certainly, the Television Animation Conference and the Animarket are definitely in the mold of trade shows, offering information and materials to those in the industry.

I wonder if animation festivals aren't preaching to the choir when we should be reaching out to the regular audience. Right now, many animation artists are piggy-backing on comics conventions, selling sketchbooks or personal projects, as well as using film festivals to talk to general audiences. Both are great for reaching the public, but I wonder how it is that comics conventions and film festivals exist all over North America, but animation festivals have somehow failed to take hold? Is it an indication of how soft support is for animation or is it just poor marketing? If an animation festival can't attract a general audience, what does that say about the films we're producing?

I'd be curious to hear comments from those who have attended animation festivals other than Ottawa and hear what they think about the percentage of animation professionals and students compared to the general public.


Pete Emslie said...

Having grown up in Ottawa, I was fortunate enough to have attended The Ottawa Animation Festival regularly for a number of years since it first debuted in 1976. Even back then, I agree that it seemed to be mostly attended by professionals and those who animated for fun with aspirations of pursuing it as a career one day. Though I myself was in neither of those camps, my interest was from being in the related field of cartoon illustration. I honestly can't recall getting an impression that the Ottawa Festival appealed much to just plain folks even back then.

The only way I can see for animation festivals to start appealing to the masses is for them to screen a number of upcoming full length animated features just like regular film festivals do. Back in 1976, the Ottawa Festival screened Bruno Bozzetto's "Allegro Non Troppo", and it may have brought in a few more people. More recently in 1998, I recall they premiered Dreamworks' "Antz", and it seems to me that attracted more mainstream viewers, though I could be wrong. Frankly, the independently animated films in competition have a somewhat limited appeal, more akin to attracting those who also enjoy trips to the art gallery than mainstream moviegoers. I honestly don't see any hope of attracting more general audiences without screening a bunch of feature length animated films from the commercial studios, and there aren't very many proportionate to the live-action films that get screened at regular film festivals.

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Michael Sporn said...

I think the purpose of Festivals as originally designed is not for them to be presentations for the general public but to be conventions for professionals to see each others' films and meet globally. This was, at least, what was designed at the first ASIFA meeting in the late 50's.

Given the state of current economies, they may have to solicit more attention from the general public to exist.

Megan Kearney said...

It seems to me that animation fans are more comfortable at comic conventions than at industry-focused events like the Ottawa Animation Festival. OAF is pretty darn dry when compared to something like Toronto's FanExpo, or the fan-run AnimeNorth. I imagine a whole lot more business gets done at an event like Ottawa's, where the focus is more on business connections than costume contests and dance parties. I think that same professionalism probably alienates the casual fan. If you're not an aspiring animator, or part of the industry, There really is a huge stigma to liking cartoons(comics these days have at least a veneer of acceptability).

Jinny Liang said...

I've been to several Japanese Anime Conventions across North America such as Anime North, Anime Expo, etc, and have also been to FanExpo (more of a comic convention), as well as the Ottawa Animation Festival in 2007.

I find that the Japanese Anime conventions and the Comic conventions draw alot more animation fans and general audiences because there are alot of events and activities that would appeal to the casual goer. They can shop, meet industry professionals, artists, voice actors, so on, and attend panels, workshops, etc. And of course there are animated film screenings and previews too.

With Ottawa Animation Festival, I felt the only thing to do there was just watch film screenings, and for which I would have to pay the tickets for each one. Of course there was a party afterwards, but it seemed to be cordoned off for only animation professionals. Besides that, I didn't feel there was anything else in the program to do. And even as an animation student, quite frankly I was bored at the festival. A large percentage of experimental animation that were shown in each set of screenings were a main turn-off for me, and highly unappealing. As a result I did not return in 2008 and have no immediate desire to really go back.

I think the greatest failure of the Ottawa Animation Festival to attract more audiences is that it is geared primarily towards the animation industry and animation students. If they want to thrive like the comic cons and Japanese animation cons, they will have to add alot more programming that is generally audience friendly and appealing. Even having an exhibitors area which would sell artbooks, animation related merchandise, etc would really help. I see this is the reason why animation artists flock to comic cons instead of animation festivals is because comic cons have that kind of outlet. I believe Ottawa animation festival will have to become less industry focused if they want to draw in larger audiences like the comic cons and Japanese animation cons.

On a side note, at Japanese animation cons in North America, there are industry announcements made such as publisher licenses and panels, so it is not solely a fan-based event.

Pete Emslie said...

It's interesting to read the comments of Jinny and Megan, from their standpoint as animation students. I was lucky enough to see the Ottawa Festival back in its first few years from 1976 through 1984, that last year being when it inexplicably played at Ryerson in Toronto instead of Ottawa, a few months after I'd coincidentally relocated here myself! I honestly believe it was more enjoyable back then, as there were a lot more films in competition that were of greater interest, to me at least. Remember, that was well before the advent of CG animation and home software like Flash. As such, there were a lot of interesting, fully animated films, most still traditional cel, others in oil paint or sand on glass, and all manner of other media.

The last time I was at the Ottawa Festival was back in 1998, and I haven't been back since. I found it pretty tedious that year myself, and in what I've heard from friends, it has gotten even worse since then. Personally, I think the problem with the festival is due to both the types of films that are now accepted into the competition screenings, as well as some of the oddball retrospectives. To be blunt, I'm no fan of festival director, Chris Robinson, as he's pretty much admitted in public that he doesn't care for studio type films and I don't care for the stuff he tends to favour. Others may disagree though.

Frankly, if given the choice between attending the Ottawa Festival and the Toronto Comic Convention, I suspect I too would have a far better time at the latter event!

Mark Mayerson said...

I really don't want this entry to become focused on the Ottawa festival. I'd like to hear about other animation festivals and whether they are attractive to the general public or just professionals and students.

Oswald Iten said...

Since you have mentioned film festivals: In August I usually attend the Locarno International Film Festival (in the Italian part of Switzerland). As probably the smallest of the “big” festivals in Europe it is not only open to general audiences but non-professionals are also the bulk of spectators. But although most of the Piazza Grande open air screenings are regularly sold out, every year there are discussions about having more A-List stars and more prestigious world premieres. Each evening the open air screening is usually preceded by a short appearance of someone by the likes of Wim Wenders or Michel Piccoli (or Jackie Chan’s son, you get the picture).

Now this, in my opinion, is one of the reasons, why film festivals are better media events: star power. Just think of Sundance without Robert Redford or Tribeca without Robert DeNiro, or even Cannes without Brangelina and the likes. Also comic con articles (and attendees) usually focus on Hollywood’s presence.

In animation we may have stars, but the average movie goer does not recognize their faces (how many Simpsons fans outside the animation community recognize Matt Groening?). So most media coverage emphasizes the amount of work that goes into animation. But you can only tell the public so many times, how truly special people these animators are and how lively the largely unknown scene currently is. But media coverage alone does not lure people into the theater. As staff member of a movie theater I know that most average movie goers are reluctant to pay for a screening that isn’t safe, i.e. they can’t measure what they are going to get.

You may say that discovering something new at the risk of being let down is one of the reasons we attend festivals, but that is hardly what most people want. So although all animation festivals I have attended had well-received press coverage and were open to general audiences, most people were professionals and students. Of course, there are always master classes and trade shows/market areas and aspects, but even most of the professionals are there to see new films.

In Annecy maybe the features and children’s programs are most popular with local audiences, but watching 15 artistic shorts in a row is not for everyone and can be a tiring experience for people not familiar with it. All of the festivals I’ve attended focus primarily on “artistic” short films. There certainly is an audience for this but they are inherently mostly people from within the animation community.

In Switzerland, some short film and animation festivals like Kurzfilmtage Winterthur ( )and Fantoche Baden ( )are important cultural events drawing in many non-professionals but mainly because of the supporting program and the festival atmosphere. It’s hardly the films people talk about later but the social event. However I still know more people who go to the comic festival Fumetto in Lucerne because there you can roam freely and don’t have to sit through screenings.

In Solothurn (showing only Swiss films), the traditional animation afternoon (one 75 minute screening) is usually equally packed with students and general audiences. But again, most professionals come because of the “animation brunch” on the same day, because meeting people is especially important in a country without an animation industry.

David B. Levy said...

From my experience attending Annecy in 2001 and 2002, PISAF (South Korea) in 2004, and Hiroshima in 2008, they have largely similar audiences of industry professionals and students. Although, PISAF, as a student festival, weighed much heavier towards the student side of things.

The point of any animation festival is to celebrate great films and to offer much needed exposure to their filmmakers. Increasing general public attendance certainly would be appreciated by both the festivals and filmmakers alike.

I'm hopeful that feature animation in North America may be finally maturing (due to indie contributions) and this could help generate new interest from the general public.

On a final note, in response to some comments above, one should not expect a film festival to play to their own specific likes in animation. Its healthy to be exposed to other voices, different approaches to this art. An ideal festival would challenge its attendees at least half of the time.

Mark, reinforcing your theory that children's programs tend to bring in the largest amount of general audience... is the NY Int Children's Film Festival. This festival is almost 95% general audience (parents and children), and the rest of the crowd are industry professionals or filmmakers. It's a hugely sold out event. I'd say its the TriBecca of Kids film festivals.

The general public is already on board to see animation for children. Its the mature stuff that they need to be introduced to. That's how we may grow the audience. Until then, for the public, animation is a kids genre ONLY.

Anonymous said...

General public attendance at Ottawa has steadily increased each year. Certainly, the times we show more commercial works we tend to get bigger local crowds...but that's not always a guarantee of success. In general, Ottawa audiences really take to the short competitions and increasingly to the feature stuff. The children's competition do okay, but not great.

Other than that, I agree with what David Levy said.

Festivals do not exist to show stuff that already has solid access to an audience. I mean, naturally, we'll show work that we think is solid (ie. Presto...which I would have put in competition if Pixar had allowed it).

As for this fella who says that I'm anti-this and that. What do you know about about me?

I'm anti-crap --whether it's independent or studio. I am pro original, provocative, energetic work that has the hand prints of a human being.

i make no apologies.

Mark, I've been to Annecy, Zagreb, Stuttgart, Holland, Fantoche, Anima Mundi etc... and although programmes obviously change from year to year, with the exception of Annecy (who do show a lot of commercial work--although they don't really get any general public. Annecy is a small tourist town and the bulk of the attendees are animators)...the other festivals show the same types of programmes. I'd say that Zagreb, Hiroshima and Anima Mundi do have bigger public audiences...Anima Mundi in particular has more general public than professionals. Very different experience.

Pete Emslie said...

As for this fella who says that I'm anti-this and that. What do you know about about me?

Sorry Chris, but I distinctly recall at the TAIS meeting sometime soon after Ottawa 1998 that you said something along the lines of "hating that studio stuff". Believe me, I was struck at the time about how blunt you were about that, so don't try to deny it now. The reason I remember this so distinctly is because I had specifically asked you why a film like "Night of the Carrots", that was generally despised by most of the public, had won out over much better films like "Transit" and "Famous Fred". Your scorn for the latter films was quite apparent in your denigrating response. Frankly I think that the Ottawa animation Festival would be far better served by somebody other than the self-proclaimed "Animation Pimp".

Anonymous said...

Stop living in the past.
A guy says something 10 years ago and you think it's fixed for life.

Secondly, I stand by Night of the Carrots. If you don't get the film or can't be bothered to try, dont blame me for it. Could feed your cat.

Thirdly, a film that the PUBLIC despised? Hold on their mate. Maybe the mainstream animation people didnt appreciate Parn's film, but don't confuse them with the PUBLIC.

But I guess great animators like Erica Russell, Igor Kovalyov and Mike Smith don't know anything about animation either.