Content is king for Asian animation

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HONG KONG -- Global animation industry insiders debated Thursday whether platform or content is king in the race to meet the fast-growing demand of tech-savvy Asian consumers.

Despite the dazzling array of platforms, from traditional television to broadband mobile, it would appear that content remains king in Asia in the eyes of most of the guests gathered at a Hong Kong Filmart panel on Asian animation co-production models.

Arguing for content's supremacy, one member of the audience reminded panelist Jin Guoping, chairman of Chinese animation company IDMT, that the 3-D animated release "Mobius Strip," on which Jin's company spent 100 million yuan ($12.8 million), flopped in 2006 when it earned back only 10 million yuan ($1.3 million) at the boxoffice.

Though "Moebius" had technical advisers with big Hollywood studio experience, critics said the film looked amateurish when it hit the screen.

"In China, content remains king because in the cities that matter, the ones the advertisers care about, every household has every platform," panel observer Ben Ji, a principal in the Los Angeles-based media finance fund Ironpond, said, speaking of China's wealthiest cities, Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Ji's point was that even if China's 460 million mobile phone subscribers and 137 million Internet users can access content 24/7 on an increasing basis, they still are starved for quality local animation.

China's government has moved to support the local industry in recent years, barring imported animation from primetime television and setting up special animation centers in 15 cities in China.

IDMT's Jin didn't deny that "Moebius" had failed, but he said the Shenzhen-based company would push ahead with animation for digital and mobile platforms in China, and hoped to build on the 80,000 minutes of animated programming it produced last year.

IDMT also has set up 3-D animation training centers in Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing, Jin said.

Firmly in the "content is king" camp was panelist Terry Thoren, CEO of Thoren Entertainment, the Los Angeles-based independent animation studio which created "The Rugrats Movie."

"Anybody who claims to have distribution all figured out is smoking crack," said Thoren, who recently acquired the rights to the 65-year-old "Archie" comics about a wholesome gang of friends, including Betty and Veronica, whose online adventures draw 20 million page views a week.

Nowadays, when the classic cartoon teen Betty wants to tell her pal Veronica about the school dance, she doesn't pass her a note in class, she sends her an SMS. Thoren's advice to the Asian audience was that updating classic "family values" content to appeal to modern 11- to 15-year-old girls would drive growth.

"The new 'Archie' will appeal in America's red states, which tend to shun bad-girl pop idols such as Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton," Thoren said, advising Asian animators to "Create your own universe, then the characters, and if they are strong they will survive in any medium."

One skeptic of the content is king camp was panelist Wong Chi Kong, executive producer of Singapore-based Scrawl Studios. Wong challenged that because of the difficulty of rights management in Asia, where many countries lack relevant laws, "there is a growing discussion that says that, in fact, distribution is king."

"We have to constantly update our content to suit the distribution platform of the moment," Wong said, adding, "You don't see a lot of production companies making the big money. That's left to the distributors."
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