Former Disney exec and Toonz Media Group’s EVP Paul Robinson explores the emerging opportunities and increasingly generous rebate programs for animation in Russia
As a former Disney executive, I thought that I knew Winnie the Pooh pretty well, having been part of multiple television reincarnations of the evergreen franchise spawned by AA Milne’s books.
So, you can imagine my surprise when confronted with a dark brown and frankly slightly scary character at The St Petersburg Cultural Forum in Russia. This depiction, which I didn’t recognise, despite prompts from our hosts that this is a character you will know well, was indeed Winnie the Pooh, part of a highly successful trilogy created by Russian political animator Fyodor Khitruk in 1969, entirely independently of the Disney version originated in Burbank, California.
This rude awakening made me realise that my then, as I believed, good knowledge of the feature and TV animation landscape was almost entirely a “western view”, and I had scant knowledge of the rich history of Russian animation. The first Russian animator, Alexander Shiryaev, was actually a ballet dancer who built an improvised studio at his apartment and tirelessly made dozens of beautiful puppets, which he captured via stop-frame animation.
His work and that of many of the early pioneers – the second one was a biologist – was pretty dark, and much was Government funded and certainly not suitable for children.
In 1933, Viktor Smirnov the head of a New York based company charged with distribution of Russian movies in the US was asked to study how Disney animation worked and he returned to Russia to establish the Experimental Animation Workshop, which led in 1936 to the founding of Soyuzmult Film, arguably Russia’s oldest and now largest animation studio. To cut a long story short, Russia now has a string of vibrant 2D and 3D studios producing beautiful animation of wonderful quality, assisted by a vigorous trade body.
Although vibrant in Russia, little of this content has travelled around the world. Masha And The Bear in the kid’s market is much quoted as a global Russian show, but it was more luck than strategy. So why the disconnect? I’ve now made several trips to Russia over the past few months and am returning again shortly to speak at another animation festival this Spring, and I think I am beginning to understand why.
The strength of the Russian industry has been its internal focus, built in Soviet times and with strong cultural resonance. The historic absence of the internet has meant that parents have controlled their kids’ viewing. Now children are starting to demand “western type content” and the storytelling and design skills required to serve this need aren’t there yet.
This gap in the Russian skillset, to which I would add comedy too – the global glue for so many shows, is now an opportunity for animators, writers and designers outside of the country to add to the impressive expertise already in Russia that have been established for decades.
To their great credit, the Russian animation industry has recognised all of this, which is why it is embracing co-productions and partnerships with other companies. I attended a very stimulating and impressive pitch session in St Petersburg of new IP, and there is no question that the quality and range of ideas is a match for any other major market in the world.
And to demonstrate that the Russian Ministry of Culture is truly walking the walk, they have recently announced a rebate program of between 30-40% of the expenditure on feature and TV production in Russia, based on achieving certain criteria. In 2020, the budget allocated is $11.7m, rising to $23.5m, so it is reasonably substantial – although not automatic and subject to selection by the Russian arbitrators of the scheme. However, my conversations lead to me to believe that the Russian studios want this scheme to make a difference.
Whatever the politicians may lead us to believe, there is a genuine desire by the Russian studios and the country’s Ministry to open up the industry to the west. I wonder whether that rather strange looking Winne The Pooh might have been very different if this scheme had been in place 50 years ago?
Paul Robinson is EVP at Toonz Media Group.