CEE Animation welcomed an opportunity to provide a platform to three women from three different countries. Together, they maintain the animated brand The Websters, the Slovak-Czech co-production that caught the interest of a German distributor. Does it mean that the door for Central and Eastern European animation to the west is open?
The Websters are, at this point, a brand consisting of a TV series, a film, and books created by the Slovak company Fool Moon, established in 2009 by filmmaker Katarina Kerekesova. The Websters began development in 2013 and premiered in 2015. Their stories follow the everyday lives of three generations of a family of spiders. In the film, a human girl becomes friends with the spider girl and together they learn that they share much more in common than any differences they have.
However, the project couldn’t grow to its current size without international cooperation from the company 13ka and Anna Vasova – a manager, producer, and also scriptwriter, with positions in institutions such as Czech Television, the FAMU film school, and the European Broadcasting Union. Up until this point, the biggest success of 13ka was its support for the short animated film Love, Dad by Diana Cam Van Nguyen, which was nominated for a European Film Award. The Czech presence necessitated the creation of a feature film, since TV series are not eligible for the support of the Czech Film Fund. Local grants of all sorts are crucial for animation. Following this, The Websters premiered as a film at the Schlingel Festival where it won the audience award.
Together, Fool Moon and 13ka were able to fully develop the project. “There is no Western money in production and also no supervision or helping hand,” remarks Vasova. However, The Websters did manage to catch the attention of the German distribution and licensing company OneGate Media, a Studio Hamburg Company, in a meeting with Susanne Freese. OneGate Media is an independent distributor involved in national and international sales, co-operating with a German public broadcaster as well as commercial stations.
“We started attending international meetings and were very lucky to be selected for the Kids Kino Forum in Warsaw in the fall of 2021,” explains Vasova. “That is where we met Susanne for the first time and made our pitch to the German partner.”
It’s still not very common for Central and Eastern European animation to enter the Western market. “What convinced me?” asks Freese. “Creative character design and overall animation – those beautiful details. And of course the music! Charming storytelling and a clear message within each episode were also crucial. I was sure kids all over the world would be able to identify with this approach.”
The Websters, however, were not – and still are not – quite perfect for international distribution. The 19 episodes created in two waves do not provide a standard amount of content. That is why the priority following the premiere of the feature film is to produce another 7 episodes to reach a total number of 26. “The new stories resonate with the present – we have even included covid” says Vasova. “We want to teach children that people, just like our spiders, need to help each other.”
This was the biggest pause for thought that Freese had before participating. “There is strong competition in the animation market, coming mostly from France. As we all know, France is very strong in this respect. They have a great funding system and producers are able to offer from 26 up to 52 episodes. In comparison, 19 episodes is an issue.”
The abundance of dialogue ended up being a lesser issue than anticipated by Vasova. “Yes, dubbing is getting more and more expensive,” confesses Freese, “but it is an investment that can be easily made if the product is worth it.” Vasova also notes that local dubbing can make use of national celebrities for free promotion, just as happened in the Czech Republic.
The presence of a German distributor isn’t the end of the road. Freese needed to lobby hard before achieving any final goal. “I immediately went to the German TV channel for children, Kika, but it didn’t work for them. I also tried Netflix, but there was the hitch that Slovak Netflix was already involved. Luckily, we managed to reach an agreement with Amazon.” Now Amazon is promoting the show while the film is still showing in cinemas, which is a great combination. At the end of March, the film premiered in Slovakia and the Czech Republic on Netflix.
Freese is currently more optimistic about the potential future. “Now we have created useful know-how and can work with other Central and Eastern European productions, if the opportunity arises, but we need to see a full and coherent vision. This means a unique style and a clear story with matching animation. When you use a certain animation style for pre-school children, you can’t tell stories for seven years old kids, for example. The educational aspect is good for public broadcasters, but commercial ones care more about comedy and adventure.”
This session of CEE Animation Experience was organized in cooperation with SPPA and Polish animation. You can watch it here.
CEE Animation Experience is supported by Creative Europe MEDIA and the International Visegrad Fund.