An Animated Discussion

Animation studios from across the region gathered for a special session at last month’s MENA ICT forum in Amman to discuss the challenges facing their industry, which include a paucity of investment, high operating costs, poor promotional channels, and a lack of consumer demand.

“Production is threatened in this part of the world unless we develop a different approach to deal with it,” warned Samer Hamarneh, a senior manager with the Rubicon Group, whose pre-production office in Amman has helped create Pink Panther cartoons and Sesame Street videos.

Hamarneh, who heads Rubicon’s Manila office, said 60 percent of Japan’s animation sector is financed by the country’s government. He questioned why the same backing wasn’t present in the Middle East. “We do not get any support in the region. Why don’t we?”

Other animation company representatives were frustrated with the lack of private investment in the industry and the scarcity of demand at a regional level. “One of the main problems is how to promote projects which have already been produced. This is something we are trying to solve. We need solid promotional programs in order to reach the points of distribution with our product and then hit the market,” said Osama Khalifa, founder of Saudi Arabia’s Ella Cartoon.

Animation design is a lengthy process where teams of artists hunch over their computers for months, and even years, to produce only feature length movies. Investment in technological development and cutting-edge software are sometimes unaffordable for production houses if not backed by a secure buyer for their work.

This leads to production houses across the region refraining from working on new projects amid fears of huge economic losses.

Khalifa said producers in the region should focus on the market over the product because regardless of how good the product is, finding a buyer is the first step to its success. With that in mind, production houses are increasingly pointing out the importance of an industry shift at a regional level to bulk up the sector’s growth and financial support.

Challenges like downloads of animation content from the Internet are also hampering the industry, as revenues coming from the selling of DVDs nosedived in the past years, wiping out profits. “Profits that we used to rake in before the downloading went viral used to be enough to cover all expenses and generate profits for many production houses. Today this does not exist anymore,” Hamarneh said.

However, quality of production has shot up in a region that, until recently, was still looking to international productions to fill the void of animation work being completed locally. “Today we are on the right path as we are progressing in reaching international levels concerning the quality of our work,” Khalifa said. “We feel that we can produce enough in the Arab world, and are capable of carrying out very sophisticated projects. But we need to look for solutions to support our production and reach more effective channels of distribution in a fast-changing industry.”