Interview with International Animation Consulting Group Founders Bill Dennis, Max Howard & Frank Lunn

By AMRITA VALECHA | 4 February, 2011 - 14:56

How did the three of you come together and found this company? What is the main objective of your company?
Bill: Max and I have known each other for more than a decade. We met during our days at Disney Feature Animation while working on many of the same films. We met Frank at an animation event in China last year. Near the end of that event, as we were recapping the experience, it became clear there were numerous issues, problems and challenges where we could provide leadership. We took these conversations further and over the next few months we decided to form a consulting group with an international focus. This was how International Animation Consulting Group DHL was born. We‘ve been operating for nearly six months now and already we have signed contracts in India and we‘re in negotiations with entities in China and Korea.

Since you said all of you had different skills that you brought to the table, we would like to know a little bit of history on all three of you. What you have been doing previously?
Max: I am British by birth; I come from a theatre background. My parents were in the theatre, and I was an actor as a child. I have been fortunate to work in many different parts of the entertainment industry. I stumbled upon ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘ and became the administrator for the making of that film. I was hired by the then head of Disney Feature Animation, Peter Schneider. We had worked together in the theatre in London and as the animation for Roger Rabbit was to be produced there, Peter was looking for a London-based executive who could operate a company in the UK capital. I set up the studio and ran it for the 18 months it took to produce the animation. The success of the film took me to the States at the time when Disney was expanding its animation operations and was looking for a creative executive to build and operate a new studio at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. That‘s when I first met Bill. We worked together on many films including Beauty and the Beast‘, ‘The Little Mermaid‘ and ‘The Lion King‘.

My experience in live action filmmaking and theatre has always been incredibly helpful and ply my trade producing independent animation feature films. When I was being taught animation in the early days of ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘, I remember saying "I‘m loving the fact that you have given me this job and I‘m going to be working on this film for 18 months, but I‘m really not quite sure what I‘m really bringing to the table here. This is so different to producing plays or movies." But as soon as I met the animators I realized, "Oh! You are actors!" and even though a lot of animators don‘t think of themselves like that, they are. And if they don‘t think of themselves as actors, then something is missing from their training and their potential to reach the highest echelons of our industry.

These are exciting times. A few years ago, the idea of an independent studio producing their own feature film would have been an impossible dream or, at the very least, a very expensive one! The early CG films could only be made using ‘high end‘, expensive computers and proprietary software. These requirements created a huge barrier to entry. Now all that has changed - today‘s basic computers and ‘off the shelf‘ software are all available at accessible prices. Now it is about skill, bringing about this new opportunity - studios popping up all over the place, all with the ambition of creating an animated feature film, or TV series, that attracts a worldwide audience. The technical barriers that had previously precluded this ambition have all gone, now it is about the talent and this makes for a very exciting future.

The missing piece is story - how to develop the screenplay and create a story that can resonate with a global audience. The story can be and, in most cases, should be indigenous but the way it is told needs to work within a structure that a global audience can understand.

This is where we come in, and the underlying inspiration for why we created our partnership. There are numerous companies and government organizations who wish to enter the world of animation, many have part of the puzzle, so to speak, of how to be successful in this field. What our partnership will do is to find those missing pieces. We believe we can play a critical role in realizing these initiatives.

The collective expertise of the partners in this industry is unparalled, and together with our extensive list of associates - all leaders in their particular fields within the animation industry - we believe, make our International Animation Consulting Group initiative totally unique.

Bill and I were a part of the amazing renaissance period of animation. We were there from mid 80‘s to mid 90‘s. I left just as ‘Pocahontas‘ opened, but I left because Jeffrey Katzenberg went to set up DreamWorks and it was an exodus.

I went with Warner Bros. and did three films: ‘The Iron Giant‘, ‘Space Jam‘, and ‘Quest for Camelot‘. Not many people can say they got to work with Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny. With Bugs and the rest of the Looney Tunes characters, it was twice - ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘ and ‘Space Jam‘.

After Warner Bros., I re-teamed with my old boss Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks, where I Co-Executive Produced, ‘Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron‘.

In more recent years, I have been part of a group pioneering the idea of independent animation production, mainly through Exodus Film Group, producing ‘Igor‘ in 2008. Several more films are in the Exodus pipeline, ‘Bunyan and Babe‘ and ‘The Hero of Color City‘. Along with Exodus founder, John Eraklis, together we pioneered the idea of working with partner studios to produce our films. Not wanting to build our own studio but rather working with emerging studios who, under Exodus‘ guidance, have been able to create first-rate animation. The work with International Animation Consulting Group compliments my hands-on producing role at Exodus.

Bill: I got involved in animation quite by chance. I had been working with the Walt Disney theme parks in manpower planning and training/development. One of my largest assignments was to provide the manpower planning and training for the newest Disney theme park, EPCOT Center. This meant determining how many people it would take to run the Park and what skills they would require. Once the Park opened, I continued to head up the same functions, but at a corporate level. This brought me to Burbank, California. At this time, Disney was going through a renaissance in animation. They wanted to bring animation back into the forefront of their business. Back to where it had been when Walt Disney was alive. With this period of change came new, dynamic people like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner and Peter Schneider. I was asked to find a new Vice President of feature animation. Over the next several months I brought in dozens of candidates from all over the world. None of them passed the interview process. Out of frustration, I went to Peter and told him I had exhausted every avenue and that I didn‘t know what he really wanted in a candidate. He said, ‘I have finally figured that out Bill, and I want you‘. I took the job and had the greatest experience of my career. I was fortunate to work on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin and more. From Disney Features I went to Hanna Barbera and ran their international studios for a number of years. I produced many of their classic characters but was also privileged to produce their newer efforts for the Cartoon Network. This included Dexter‘s Lab, Powderpuff Girls and Johnny Bravo. I ended up in India and founded and ran the Toonz Studios. Presently, in addition to IACG, I have a small boutique studio in the USA and Germany called Zanymation International. I‘m also the executive director of ASIFA International.

Frank: I have worked in the entertainment industry for the past 20 years, including the last 15 years as an entertainment attorney. When I met Bill and Max in China, my client base had become about 70% animation-related, with the other 30% live-action-related. I represent a number of top-notch animation creators in Hollywood. I‘ve enjoyed working in the animation industry because I find the people to be more genuine. They are less concerned with image and more passionate about their art.

Over the last several years I have seen financial resources for the US animation industry shrink drastically, so there tends to be less production that occurs in the US - especially less independent animation production. The big studios also tend to outsource their work. This has resulted in a loss of jobs in the US but has also presented a unique opportunity to arrange international co-productions between the US and other nations. Because I also work as a producer, I started looking at these international co-production opportunities as a way to foster the creative growth of the animation industry worldwide. The US has a terrific reputation as a creative nation. It is my feeling that there are many countries in Asia that would be wonderful co-production partners with independent US animation studios and production companies.

I think that animation offers investors and creators this opportunity to have evergreen properties - properties that keep being produced and keep making revenue throughout the years. You can spin off a television series from a film, or spin off a film from a television series. By combining US storytelling and creative ability with the growing production capability of Asian studios, you can create properties that have global appeal, properties that will attract global audiences, and properties which can become franchise properties that transcend across multiple platforms of exploitation (film, TV, internet, consumer products).

I am a firm believer that US creators don‘t have to rely on one of the six different television networks in the US to get their shows on the air and seen by millions of consumers. Creators can develop and produce their projects in Europe or in Asia first, find distribution within those territories, and then bring their properties back to the US for US distribution. Along the way, they are likely able to strike a better deal with the US networks because they‘ve been able to already prove the popularity of their shows outside the US.

What I like to do is bring people together and help facilitate deals. I‘m a deal maker and I tend to think of the Big Picture. What‘s the Big Picture? To me, it‘s the opportunity for everyone (creator, investor, crew, distributors) to make good money from a project while still having fun. I think we are all creative to a certain extent but I also enjoy setting up the whole deal structure. It is a real honor for me to be able to work with Bill and Max, not only because of their experience, but because we have a great time together. It is enjoyable conversation, there is a wealth of experience among us that we bring to our clients - studios, governments and government organizations - and we‘re trying to help facilitate the growth of animation within various countries that have a passion to succeed.

One of the biggest challenges that animation companies face is the investment.
Max: Money is tied up for longer because these films take longer. The up side is much better than for our live action colleagues. Animated features tend to be far more profitable, earning money from ancillary markets and continuing to earn from these markets long after the film has been released.

Bill: Unlike in the United States, one of the key problems in India is that there isn‘t a large established audience for animation. Therefore, it‘s difficult to line up funding for feature films and sponsors for television animation. In the US there‘s a huge appreciation from both adults and children for animation. This has happened over several decades and a couple of generations.

When feature films are commissioned in India, they only target the Indian audiences and occasionally a few smaller Asian countries. Since this isn‘t a big audience for animation, these generally don‘t fare all that well. To produce a feature film in India for an Indian audience, it costs from 2-4 million USD. That‘s a huge investment. I think there is a great opportunity for an enterprising Indian studio to develop and produce a feature film based on Indian characters and stories, but with a worldwide audience in mind. The investment will be larger but the audience will be ten-fold.