In an ideal world, Mavka was supposed to mark 2022 – the premiere of the full-length Ukrainian cartoon was promised to domestic viewers on December 29. Before that, they would gradually get to know the characters of the future film, learn more about the plot intrigues, and be charmed by the visuals. But when a full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine broke out, work on the cartoon, like everything in the country, stopped. Some animators ended up in temporarily occupied territories, some went to the Armed Forces to defend the country; the marketing plan for the coming months completely lost its relevance. However, hardened by the long production process of the movie and the global coronavirus pandemic, the creators of Mavka managed not only to establish a work process even under wartime conditions but also to increase activity in the public space, both Ukrainian and international. At the recent Marché du Film in Cannes, the cartoon was featured in several events, including Animation Day organized by the Annecy Animation Festival. In more detail about the international direction of work and the continuation of the production of Mavka under new realities, we talked with producers Iryna Kostyuk and Anna Eliseeva, and director Oleg Malamuzh.
The main thing you need to know about Mavka production right now is that it did not stop, it just took a small break in the first weeks of the full-scale invasion. "We’ve spent almost a week locating assessing the situation of our team members," says Malamuzh, adding that when the invasion began, the project was in its final stages, which means a tight and continuous production process. The war interrupted it, but not for long: "At first, like everyone else, we brainstormed. Everyone's situation was different – some were stuck in the occupation, some moved to the West of Ukraine, and some went abroad. But fortunately, everyone remained alive and healthy, and most people already wanted and were ready to return to work," Oleg recalls.
But animators can’t come back to work in the conditions of war just like that – first, you need to reorganize the production system. However, it was achieved quite quickly, the experience gained during the pandemic helped here. "Covid taught us that everyone doesn't need to sit and work in one place. The main thing is for a person to be self-organized and understand that they have to perform their tasks," the director explains. According to him, the creators of the project initially intended to open a new office and relocate the animators to Lviv, but then they abandoned this idea: "As during the pandemic, we are now using the Shotgun system, which allows us to monitor the work of each department in real-time. Animators can be anywhere in the world – this does not affect the process in any way."
In pre-war times, animators also worked on Mavka remotely. For example, it was common practice to attract freelancers from other countries. The war did not add anything new in this regard. And the difficulties were that, firstly, not all employees managed to escape quickly from the territories temporarily occupied by Russia, and secondly, not all could find the necessary equipment in a new place. "We had cases when a person managed to move to Lviv, but they did not have a working car. Then we brought equipment from Kyiv," Oleg says.
The main part of the Mavka team was saved, and thanks to this, production is on schedule. According to the director, in the first days of the full-scale invasion, several people went to the Territorial Defense Forces (later to the Armed Forces of Ukraine), and some decided to go abroad, but this is rather an exception.
Of course, it is not without difficulties. In the first month of the full-scale invasion, when the enemy was near Kyiv, the animators of Mavka and their families had to hide in basements. It was especially difficult for those who were caught up in the temporary occupation in the suburbs of the capital, for example, in Bucha. Today, the situation is no easier: Russia continues to shell our cities, and Ukrainians, as before, regularly go down to bomb shelters. But even rockets are not good enough to prevent the creation of the Ukrainian cartoon.
When can we expect the premiere of Mavka, you might ask? According to the producers, the cartoon is on track to meet the pre-war deadline – the fourth quarter of 2022. But, unfortunately, this does not mean that the premiere date will remain unchanged: the release will have to wait until the end of the war. It is impossible to tell whether Ukrainian viewers will be able to go to the cinema to watch Mavka on December 29, because it is not known whether cinemas and the industry, in general, will be able to work fully then.
At the same time, sitting idly by is also not an option. Kostyuk and Eliseeva are certain that today it is more important than ever for the Ukrainian voice to be heard from all possible international platforms, therefore the work on the international promotion of Mavka has increased many times. "The mission of exporting Ukrainian culture, in general, is more relevant than ever. This is what they want to take away from us, to deprive us of our DNA, to "denazify". Therefore, it is very important for us to realize Mavka in Ukraine and to spread it in the world," explains Iryna Kostyuk.
And the world reciprocates Mavka. In Cannes, the cartoon took part not only in the pitching of Animation Day (Annecy Goes To Cannes 2022) and received a separate screening, but also became one of the projects at the National Stand and the headliner of the entire catalog of FILM.UA Distribution. As the producers explain, this line-up of events was aimed at achieving a single goal – to sell the rights to as many countries as possible and achieve the widest global distribution. The results did not take long: FILM.UA Distribution recently announced that the film was sold to the countries of Scandinavia, as well as to Greece and Mongolia (in addition to previously concluded agreements with Italy, including the Vatican, Spain, San Marino, Switzerland, Poland, Portugal, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Vietnam, India, Israel, as well as with the Baltic countries, the Balkan region, the Middle East, and North Africa).
Interest in Mavka can also be estimated by the number of visitors to the events where the film was presented: according to the producers, both representatives of companies with which agreements have already been concluded, as well as potential partners, came, and the feedback was extremely positive. Before the screening, the guests were shown a video that tells how Ukrainian animators work in wartime conditions. "It made quite an impression on everyone," Kostyuk notes.
Mavka was selected for Annecy Goes To Cannes 2022 pitching. Although the event is more focused on projects in the early stages of production, this platform was still useful for the Ukrainian cartoon. Firstly, we are talking about pitching at the largest animation festival, and secondly, participation in it means an intensification of work with the b2b audience plus new mentions in the international press.
The latter is especially relevant for the creators of Mavka since they faced a truly global task: "We pitched not only our cartoon but also the whole country. Our voices must be heard because there is a war that no one can turn away from. This is a war of dictatorship against democracy and the free world. We work in bomb shelters, and they kill our children, and our culture – a real genocide is taking place in the center of Europe in the 21st century. You need to shout about it on every available platform," Eliseeva says. In general, producers not only do not hide but also emphasize their active civic position: "Ukrainian companies that work now without a publicly declared civic position are not Ukrainian companies," Kostyuk notes.
But let's get back to the production process and the plans of the creators. With the first one, everything is more or less clear – it proceeds almost according to the pre-war schedule, having shifted only by a week of forced downtime. As for the plans, there is less clarity today: if the Ukrainian premiere can be postponed to "after the war", for the international partners who have already acquired the rights to the project this wording will soon not be enough. "Earlier we emphasized that the release will first take place in Ukraine and only then the cartoon will be released in other countries. This was relevant when we announced December 29 to be the date of the Ukrainian premiere, and everyone understood when they could plan their premieres. Now, this is not the case, because it is difficult to plan Ukrainian release for as long as the war lasts, and the cinema industry in Ukraine has practically stopped. But internally we understand that by the end of summer we need to decide when to plan the premiere in Ukrainian cinemas," says Iryna.
International partners can be understood: now Mavka has become even more relevant, as well as its main message – a strong character of Ukrainian mythology authored by Lesya Ukrainka, who seeks peace in her forest world. Everyone wants to introduce it to a wide audience as soon as possible, so now the creators are considering different configurations. For example, simultaneous premieres of the cartoon both in Ukraine and abroad are not excluded, as well as the option when the international release will take place earlier than the local one. "It is becoming more relevant also because the statuses of some countries are changing. For example, Poland, where many Ukrainians live today. Therefore, we are thinking about different scenarios, and we will act depending on the situation," Kostyuk explains.
The only thing that can be said for sure about the premiere is that it will first take place on the big screen and only then in digital space. "This applies not only to Ukraine but also to the territories where we sell a full package of project rights. Our invariable condition is the availability of movie distribution," emphasizes Iryna, adding that the only exception can be the United States, where it is difficult to get into full-fledged distribution due to a large number of "their own" blockbusters.
Due to the full-scale war, the timing of the project's marketing campaign also changed. This, for example, concerns the implementation of licensing agreements: as early as May, Kostyuk reported that sales of goods under the Mavka brand were supposed to start on those days, but they had to be postponed to a more appropriate time. At the same time, all agreements with licensees remain valid. It is a similar story with the active pre-premiere promo, which should start 3-6 months before the release: the stages of the future campaign are unchanged, but the pre-war schedules have shifted. How much – it is difficult to say at the moment, however, according to the producers, they keep their finger on the pulse of what is happening in the country. "Of course, we are not expacting that one fine day we will wake up and the war is over. Everyone dreams about it, but the process will drag on for some time. We are monitoring what is happening in Ukraine, so we will be ready," Anna Eliseeva assures.
However, the creators do not let those who are impatiently waiting for Mavka get bored. Over the past few months, they presented two new images of the main character of the cartoon:
at the beginning of April, we saw Mavka with a spark of real Ukrainian fury,
and on the first day of summer, she appeared in a Ukrainian image
Needless to say, both appearances were received positively by the audience, and interest in the premiere increased once again. And although at first, the creators did not plan to show the "fiery" image of Mavka, since it is used in one of the key moments of the cartoon (and no one likes spoilers), its relevance turned out to be so obvious that the image will also be involved in the further promotional campaign.
Both the producers and the director unanimously emphasize that Mavka, as often happens with creativity, was ahead of its time. To such an extent that nothing had to be changed in the upcoming promotional campaign – only a little adjustment of accents. "We have the same messages for the Ukrainian and foreign markets: we will not allow Ukrainian culture to be destroyed, and Mavka is one of its brightest symbols. She is our Patroness, and we believe that she will protect us. Previously, we did not have a specific slogan, all wordings were not successful and voluminous enough, but we actively used the quote "My heart is full of something that will never die."
“Nowadays, this expression has acquired new meanings, therefore it has become the official slogan of the entire campaign. In addition, at the end of the trailer, we heard that the most valuable thing for a person is love, and now we add: and peace. These are our two main values," says Eliseeva. Kostyuk clarifies that for these same reasons, the authors slightly reformulated the project's logline: "Previously, the film was about Mavka, who at some point is faced with a difficult choice – to follow her heart or to follow the duties of Keeper of the Forest. Now the project is about Mavka as a strong female character from Ukrainian mythology who defends her World during a threat."
Mavka of course is going to happen, but the issue of release dates remains open until the end of the war and the stabilization of Ukrainian film distribution. The growth of interest in the international market can ultimately bring positives to Ukrainian animation in general. "The relevance of co-production, especially animation, with Europe has now increased, especially with neighboring countries. And when earlier all negotiations were conducted in the context that we will earn this much, and you will earn this much, now finances have taken a back seat. They want to work with us, because there are many excellent specialists in Ukraine, and Mavka is an animation of a new model and quality for our country, which is also noted by international partners and colleagues. We are supported and treated with complete understanding," says Iryna Kostyuk. Anna Eliseeva agrees with her, but she emphasizes that this does not mean that there is no need to make efforts now: "This is a great historical chance for all of us, but at the same time it is quite a challenge. It is necessary to understand that after February 24, Ukrainian screenwriters did not immediately start writing better, and producers did not suddenly receive magical settings for success. It is, as before, a business, and the further you are from Eastern Europe, the more you feel it. Everyone needs to work on themselves because the sole fact that we are Ukrainians will not get us far."