Madagascar 2 and 2.0

Madagascar 2 and 2.0

Yes, it's astonishing

Madagascar, the island nation off the east coast of Africa, is convulsing. Two political rivals, the former mayor of the capital, and the current president, are struggling for power. The former mayor accuses the president of being an autocrat and a wealthy magnate (who made his fortune in the dairy business) indifferent to the poverty and unmet basic needs of Madagascar’s people. He’s demanded that the president step down and has called on the military and police to arrest him. The president, who only a few years back contested for power with a long-time dictator and eventually triumphed at the ballot box, has refused. More than 100 people have been killed in recent weeks in protests and street battles, and the country remains tense and dispirited. It’s an all-too-familiar story: political leaders jockey for power while too many people remain without health care, sanitation, schooling or jobs.

At the same time, “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,”the animated DreamWorks sequel to the hit “Madagascar” is a DVD hit, after being a hit in movie theaters earlier this year (not a blockbuster, but a $100 million+ draw that held the number 1 spot the week it opened). Are these two versions of Madagascar’s reality related? I’d argue that in some ways they are. Certainly the “Madagascar” films don’t have any role in stirring Madagascar’s civil conflict. But the films do generate a lot of money for their backers in large measure by “animating” Madagascar’s natural wonders: ring-tailed and other lemurs, towering baobab trees. Madagascar, the country, can’t copyright its name or biodiversity. (Ironically, when I searched on Google images for “Madagascar”, the first page was all images from the animated films!) So how to benefit from Hollywood’s interest? Or more to the point: how can, and should, Hollywood benefit Madagascar?

While Madagascar’s current strife has deep roots, one fact is uncontroversial: most of Madagascar’s people are mired in poverty. Money isn’t the answer to all of a country like Madagascar’s problems, but basic services do need funding. What follows is a “modest proposal” for how the “Madagascar” cartoon creators could, and should, repay Madagascar 1.0, the country, for being the source of a hit, revenue-generating concept. Madagascar 2.0, the country that will emerge from the current crisis, deserves no less.

[Note: this piece was first published by the Environmental News Network when “Madagascar” was first out. Its relevance to “Madagascar 2” and to today’s Madagascar is undimmed.] [blockquote]In early July, as members of the G-8 met in Scotland and singers convenedfor the Live 8 concerts seeking to make poverty in Africa history,moviegoers were flocking to see DreamWorks SKG’s latest cartoon hit, Madagascar. In it, a quartet of animals from New York’s Central Park Zoo in search of adventure end up in Madagascar, an island country off the eastcoast of Africa.

Here, they encounter Nature in all its strange and compelling forms,including lemurs, small, wide-eyed primates found nowhere else on Earth. (Having separated from the African mainland millions of years ago, evolution in Madagascar produced a unique set of animals and plants.)

Despite mixed reviews, the film’s U.S. box office is hovering near $200 million and overseas audiences are also entranced. Madagascar may well earn half a billion dollars globally, not counting DVD sales and lucrativeproduct tie-ins. “The Lion King”, an animated film set in East Africa, earned $750 million from ticket sales alone. Merchandise added millions more.

In the context of Africa, these are small fortunes.The irony is that asHollywood makes a mint from cartoons with African landscapes, the real-lifecountries struggle to meet basic human needs and fund conservation programsto protect the endangered animals and habitat the films capitalize on.

Wouldn’t it be magnanimous of Hollywood to lend its support to the campaignfor Africa, not by way of a handful of celebrities, but through revenue fromits successful films that trade on exotic African landscapes?

Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries. Its government is isunable to provide jobs, health care, education and clean water to its fast-growing population, nearly half of which is under 15. These adolescents would make a prime audience for Madagascar. But with over 80% of Madagascar’s population surviving on less than $2 a day, a movie ticket and small popcorn are largely out of reach.

And poverty is putting pressure on Madagascar’s famed “spiny forests,” hometo species that “star” in Madagascar. Industrial development, traditionalslash-and-burn agriculture that consumes more and more land as the population grows, and the heavy reliance on wood for fuel are all taking atoll on Madagascar’s forests and animals.

And when international lending agencies demand that poor countries tighten their belts, environment-related budgets are often the first to feel the ax.In this, Madagascar is no exception.

So, while Madagascar has brightened DreamWorks’ profit projections, Madagascar is not guaranteed any similar pay-off. News reports variously suggest that the country’s tourist agency is unsure how to capitalize on its new (and perhaps fleeting) fame and lacks funds to do so, or that it is readying new campaigns. But tourists are fickle. Madagascar may lose out, even as Madagascar cashes in.

Like other African countries, Madagascar is under pressure from donor nations to wean itself from aid by developing new enterprises and welcoming private investment from overseas. Countries and species cannot (yet) trademark their names or images to harness their profit potential. They still have to depend on the goodwill of strangers or responsible corporations.

What if DreamWorks bought in and invested a percentage of Madagascar’sfilm and merchandise revenues in ventures to support human development andconservation programs in Madagascar? Given the world’s appetite for nature-themed cartoons this could mean millions of dollars for a desperately poor country with little dent in DreamWorks’ bottom line.

Another bonus: plaudits from anti-poverty and environmental campaigners. If this idea gains traction, it could mean goodwill on a scale akin to the millions raised for African famine relief 20 years ago by Live Aid, Live 8’s precursor.

In tune with the times, there is a pragmatic element, too, for DreamWorks and other studios to consider. If poor countries with rich biodiversity continue to lose the animals and landscapes that so delight the rest of theworld, Hollywood studios could be stumped.

Films like Madagascar would no longer offer audiences a tantalizing worldthat could be visited, but rather a brightly colored version of what already has become history. If this comes to pass, it won’t be only filmgoers who will feel the loss.[/blockquote]