With examples such As the "Little Prince" presented during Cannes Film Festival or "Adama" released in the fall, the French animated films have a pretty good visibility. In fact, the animation industry is highly developed in France, be it cinematographic or audio-visual productions. Thus it is interesting to discuss on the strengths and needs of the animated films production.
French animated films: production and export volume
The production of animated movies is a strong sector in France, like this between 2008 and 2014, an average of 8 movies per year has been registered, without taking account of the intervention of French studios as line producers for foreign animated films. Regarding audio-visual programs the CNC announced in the 2014 report an average annual production volume of 314 hours of animation in the last ten years (2005- 2014), representing approximately 30% of international sales of French audio-visual programs. As an example we can here named the export success of "Totally spies" a kid series produced by Marathon Media and broadcasted in over 25 countries.
The strength of the French animation sector comes from the innovation of French writers and Producers but is mainly dependent upon the CNC’s support. As a matter of fact French producers may benefit from several support funds in favour of the animated productions: development fund, support for pilot production, financing support for the development of new technologies, financing support for the preparation of animated movies… Therefore the CNC has reformed the audio-visual support for animation in November 2015 to "strengthen the entire industry (...) in order that French animation remains the leader in Europe." according to Frédérique Bredin, President of CNC. The reform text focuses especially on a better support of the development of the projects in their writing phase.
Despite these many supports, a strong drop in production can be noticed in 2015 with only two animated feature films approved by the CNC. Stéphane Le Bars, general delegate of the main union of animated movie producers, explains this situation by "a waiting effect" of the regulatory projects for film productions. Indeed the production of animated films is expensive (in 2014 the average budget was of 5.5 Million Euros), and regulatory uncertainties weigh on the producers in their search for funding.
Beyond the economic issues, animation projects raise interesting legal questions with regard to the level of legal certainty of the projects.
Comics and animation: adaptation rights at stake
The media of comics and animation are very close, and it is very common to switch from paper media to an animated film or series. The pre-existing fame of the comics represents a pledge of good audiences, and regarding to the audio-visual series the examples are more than many: « Tintin », « Agrippine » « Lucky Luke »» « Blake& Mortimer », « Iznogoud », « Garfield & Cie ».. .
The switch to a feature film is far more ambitious and as a consequence less common, but some animated movies are based on comics, such as « Persepolis » by Marjane Satrapi or Joan Sfar’s movie «The Rabbi’s cat». However in both cases the authors have themselves directed the adaptation of their work and supported the realization of the films. In certain case the comics' adaptations do not involve the original author; it was the case for the movie "Asterix or the domain of the gods", directed by Louis Clichy and produced by M6 Studio after they acquired the adaptation rights from the Editions Albert René, for an impressive guaranteed minimum of € 2 million,
It is important here to distinguish between two situations: one where rights holders exploit the rights to the comic themselves, including Dargaud Dupuis Audiovisuel and Media, and the other one where a producer wants to achieve an adaptation and must obtain the relevant adaptation's rights, as was the case for 'Asterix'. In the same way the studio Xilam developed the some series based on Morris’ works such as « Lucky Luke », « The Daltons », and « Rantanplan » after having acquired the adaptation rights.
The assignment of adaptation's rights involve a great rigour in the delineation of such rights, particularly with regard to the respect of the narrative of the comic, the specificities of the characters, their graphic characteristics ... It is then appropriate for the producers to be especially careful. Also, it is not uncommon for the authors or rights holders to demand a say or even a participation in the project, which can make costly and complex to carry out the project, and must be carefully considered by the producers.
Beyond the issue of adaptation, the development process of a project of animated series or film is long and requires that producers acquire each element of the project, which is protected by copyright. The exclusivity associated with each of theses rights is also subject to negotiations, the publishers are often concerned not to freeze their rights for too long, in order to optimize the exploitation of such rights.
Creation process and copyright agreements
The length of the production process in the animation implies a legal protection at each step of the development. It is notably necessary for the producers to introduce assignment contracts regarding the copyrights of the bibles of the audio-visual projects.
Literary and graphic bibles are documents that serve to proceed to the development of a series or an animated film. Together these document allow to determine the development of the story and the visual identity of the audio-visual project (including the drawing style of the recurring characters and settings.) They are particularly important in the context of a series but can also be useful for the development of a film that is not based on a comic and thus does not have a pre-existing visual identity.
All these elements constitute the identity of the animation project and the producers use them as the most important basis of their fundraising effort. It is why the Producers should secure their projects at the earliest possible by acquiring the rights to these elements in order to continue developing the project while trying to spare themselves some flexibility to respond to a possible further step and hire an artistic director or director whose fame is sometimes more established than those of the project initiators. It is only with this flexibility, that producers can proceed peacefully with the financing of a budget as important as those of animation projects.
Within the frame of the development of an audio-visual series, the literary and graphic bibles are often preceded by a narrative arch, i.e. a written presentation more or less succinct, that includes the path of the recurring characters and the evolution of their relationships during all or part of a season. Here again it is important for the producers to obtain the corresponding copyrights to develop the project.
Only then come the usual stages of production, including scriptwriting with authors and the making of the films entrusted to a director. It is then necessary to complete the legal framework of the project at each stage of its development, notably by contracting any writing contracts and all the necessary copyrights’ assignments. Finally, contract with voiceovers with certain notoriety is often an asset to finance the project, because it enables to convince some reluctant financial partners.
We can see that, the projects of animated films and series involve many stakeholders. The deep complexity is then to ensure the perfect continuity in the chain of rights and it is essential for the producer to ensure that all the rights are granted to him. This is particularly important in the event of collaboration with a large group that will ask for the derivative rights to be part of the rights acquired by the producer as necessary assets for him to join the project.
Finally we note that the merchandising rights are often more important than generally in the film industry. Indeed thanks to their graphics and target audience, animated movies are particularly suitable for the manufacture of derived products, a sector that can be very profitable for the producers. It may even happen that the profit to come from the "licensing" allows part of the financing of the next seasons of an audio-visual series. The issues here are particularly complex when there is prior use of products derived from the adapted work.
Employees’ works and need for vigilance
In the context of developing an animation project, it is often than production companies or service providers, permanently hire some writers, designers, graphic artists or directors to work for them on various projects. This naturally raises the question of the assignment of the copyright on the creations of employees.
Indeed, under French law, the existence of an employment contract or a service provision contract cannot in any case impair the copyright of the employee in favour of his employer. Even an assignment of rights clause in the contract of employment is not necessarily sufficient to grant the copyright to the employer. Indeed according to the French intellectual property code, overall assignment of works not yet created shall be null and void. The code also predicts that an assignment of rights must precisely define the media of the exploitations of the work, the duration and territory of such copyright assignment.
Thus, is it necessary to make all the copyright assignments necessary for the use of employees' creations with appropriate clauses, and ideally project-by-project. We can again notice that the contractual volume regarding animation production is particularly important and requires a great rigor from the producers. Thus it seems relevant to resort to a lawyer who will negotiate the copyright assignments and will ensure the legal security of the projects.