Having forged an extensive career as a film producer and studio executive, Max Howard has previously been in charge of the Walt Disney Feature Animation Studios and was also president of Warner Bros Feature Animation. In recent years, he has been working regularly in China, developing local stories for the international market. Cineuropa had a chance to meet Howard after his master classes during the Almaty Film Festival’s Business Forum, and to discuss the evolution of animation, the importance of co-productions in Europe and how Kazakhstan can develop a new industry.
Cineuropa: During your career, you have seen the animation market evolve; what has been one of the most striking changes that you have observed?
Max Howard: I started in the late 1980s with Disney, when traditional animation was still hand-drawn, and the studio owned the marketplace. That was reflected, as the public reacted when “Disney” was in the title. This reaction endured until CGI came along, mainly with Pixar, which didn’t ever own the market in the same way and never stopped other companies from finding their audience. I’m glad that this era has ended, as the public now reacts to the movie, and not to who produced it, and that’s how live-action films have always been. So, today, if you make a good film, you can find your audience even without the brand of a studio behind it, and that’s a tremendous change.
The European industry, though, works on completely different terms; what is your impression of the co-productions here?
Co-production is an amazing part of the European film industry. As European filmmakers do not rely on private investment, what they can get access to is subsidies, and therefore that’s led to co-productions because no funding is enough for the whole film. Therefore, you see these amazing combinations, such as Song of the Sea [+], a beautiful, hand-drawn film by Irish animator Tomm Moore, in which Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Denmark were also involved. Each of the countries brought their percentage to the project, and as the schemes are designed, the investments cannot travel abroad, beyond their markets. I think this is incredibly clever and hard at the same time due to the time-consuming procedure involved in applying. Of course, it’s complicated to divide an animated film, but it’s still doable and less difficult than a live-action one, as the production pipeline can be segmented more easily.
Do you think that Europe can provide the industry with new talents?
I believe that the animation schools in Europe are producing maybe the most talented artists. I’m thinking primarily about the French ones, like Les Gobelins, MoPA, Creapole or Emile Cohl, among others, which are great institutions. Also, because of the subsidies, many of the graduates don’t flee abroad, making Europe a powerhouse for animation.
What are you expecting to happen next?
I’m still waiting for that hit breakout movie from Europe. Although I’m a bit concerned that the films that are publicly supported are leaning towards arthouse, rather than being commercial. So I’m hoping this will change, not only for the audience, so that they will watch the film, which is the most important factor, but also in order to see these revenues going back to the funding bodies and the filmmakers being able to make the movies they want, thanks to both box-office success and private investments.
How did you get involved in the Chinese market?
A few years ago, I was invited to become a DeTao Master. It’s an organisation based in Shanghai, and that’s when I delved more into the Chinese cultural community. That was my second introduction to Chinese stories, as I worked briefly on Mulan before leaving Disney. I also realised that the ancient Silk Road was not only used for goods, but also for cultural exchange, as these journeys from the East to the West, and vice versa, also brought stories. There are various Romeo and Juliet-equivalent stories in China, where the lovers are transformed into butterflies in the end, and my personal assumption is that they are all based on the same idea, that the families must learn to become more tolerant and understanding, a message that is still pretty valid today. My mission is to unearth these kinds of stories and see if they can be developed and travel beyond the shores of China. I think there is no reason for them not to, as they are not plot-based stories, but it is their emotional heart that works. Plus, they have these global themes which you can make a successful film out of, even if the setting is in China or in Kazakhstan.
Talking of Kazakhstan, what was your impression of your visit to Almaty and the festival?
I felt that there were some great stories to be told from Kazakhstan. The region has been a revelation to me, partially because I haven’t done enough homework, and I was expecting a totally different landscape to the mountain range or the hard-to-believe Big Almaty Lake – it’s extraordinary. I liked the energy of the people I met in Almaty and how they attend the festival, and the fact that filmmakers are keen to meet professionals gives a different dynamic to a young industry. The fact that there is no established infrastructure could be an opportunity to create something new, and if there is financial support for that, it will be unbelievable. There are people abroad who might not be aware where the country actually is, but what a perfect way to establish what’s where, by having a cultural export from Kazakhstan and surprising the world.