Asia's ani sector challenges Hollywood


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CHINA: Animated features with roots in Chinese folklore connect with moviegoers.

This summer's success of "Kung Fu Panda" and "The Storm Rider" has brought back the confidence to China's animated films market. DreamWorks Animation's "Panda" earned nearly $21.6 million, becoming the first animated film to pass the 100 million yuan mark in China.

Also this summer, "Storm Rider" earned $4.4 million at the boxoffice, breaking the $3.5 million domestic animated film record achieved by 1999's "Lotus Lantern." Adapted from a well-known Hong Kong comic book by Ma Rongcheng, "Storm Rider" had a large existing fan base before the movie was made, especially in East and Southeast Asia.

"The film hasn't been screened abroad yet, but it is set to hit the screens in Japan and in Southeast Asia later this year," says Wang Lei of Shanghai Media Group.

According to Wang, SMG began talking to overseas and domestic distributors and cinemas about the project and held test screenings long before the film was finished.

"These early talks with distributors will help the movie get shown on many more screens abroad and at home," Wang adds.

Weeks before "Storm Rider" was released, another Chinese animated film, Shanghai Animation Film Studio's

"The Calabash Brothers" earned more than $1.4 million at the boxoffice in China, due in part to an audience already familiar with the subject matter.

"Calabash Brothers" tells the story of seven boy heroes and their scorpion and snake enemies. The movie was made up of 13 unchanged but digitally remastered 10-minute TV episodes that originally aired in China 22 years ago.

"Although 'Calabash Brothers' became popular 20 years ago, they still form a vivid memory for people born in the '70s and '80s," says Zhou Jun, management director at Shanghai Animation Film Studio.

Besides domestic animation filmmakers, foreign companies also have been mining Chinese culture for big-screen material.

Disney co-produced an animated film last year -- its first in China -- with China Film Group. "The Magic Gourd," based on a popular Chinese children's story, earned a healthy $3 million at the boxoffice in China.

Jo Yan, senior vp of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Asia-Pacific, says the film reinvigorated a popular Chinese tale by giving it a contemporary look and feel.

"Incorporating recognizable Chinese elements into filmmaking will be key to tapping the local audience successfully in the future," he says.

-- By Alex S. Dai

HONG KONG: Ambitous, talented animation house hopes to give Pixar a run for its money

With the $100 million worldwide box-office gross of Warner Bros.' "TMNT" and the highly anticipated, CGI-animated feature "Astro Boy" scheduled for next year, Hong Kong-based Imagi Animation is poised to become a premier animation powerhouse in Asia.

Dubbed "China's Pixar," the Hong Kong-listed animation studio, which had its beginnings in manufacturing plastic Christmas trees, has demonstrated a rapid expansion that includes the adaptation of two well-known Japanese manga and anime series: the much beloved Osamu Tezuka classic "Astro Boy" and 1970s sci-fi anime "Gatchaman." Next up is its first original property, "Cat Tale," a potential co-production now in development.

The company aims to use the combined talents of Hollywood and Hong Kong to produce animated features that measure up to its U.S. forebearers.

"Our strategy is to develop our projects using the same great pool of talents, so the caliber of the people we hire in terms of designing the film is very much equal to Pixar or DreamWorks," Imagi CEO Douglas Glen says. For instance, the $65 million "Astro Boy" was written by Timothy Harris ("Kindergarten Cop") and directed by David Bowers ("Flushed Away"), with Tim Cheung ("Shrek") in charge of the acting performances with his team of animators in Hong Kong.

In terms of talent, "we are at a parity with the best of our peers in the U.S.," Glen says, "while our production line in Hong Kong is a lot more efficient than the U.S. production lines in terms of turning budgets into high-quality films on the screen. So our $65 million film can easily cost (the same as) a film with a U.S. production line three times that."

Glen also cites the diverse outlook local animators bring to a production.

"Hong Kong is unique in that the people here grow up with western and Japanese animation, and Hong Kong film tradition, so this unique mix of cultural influence in Hong Kong allows us to make the world's best films," he says.

In the past month, Imagi has raised about $30 million to fund its new projects from 2009-2011, including "Astro Boy" and "Gatchaman."
"With the release of 'Astro Boy" we'll have the ability to demonstrate to investors that a strong-performing film from a Hong Kong-listed company like Imagi, with the privileged economics that we get by having a more efficient production line in Hong Kong, can really deliver substantial profits," Glen says.

-- By Karen Chu

INDIA: Local industry teams with Hollywood to produce more original content

While India has established itself as a key player in animation outsourcing, the industry here is evolving to the next level by focusing on original content creation backed by the arrival of international majors.

Disney's co-production with veteran Mumbai-based Bollywood banner Yash Raj Films on the animated feature "Roadside Romeo" (due for release in the winter) is seen as a major step in expanding the market given that the film is voiced by top local actors Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor.

Not to be outdone, Mumbai-based Warner Bros. Pictures India will produce an as-yet-untitled animated feature revolving around birds with Mumbai-based filmmaker Jyotin Goel.

DreamWorks Animation recently established a foothold in India via an alliance with Technicolor Color Service-owned, Bangalore-based Paprikaas Interactive, which is working on the NBC series "Mad Santa," featuring characters from DreamWorks' 2005 feature "Madagascar."

Elsewhere, Bangalore-based Virgin Comics -- founded by Richard Branson, director Shekhar Kapur ("Elizabeth") and author Deepak Chopra -- has plans to develop an animated character for the popular Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra, among other properties. Turner International's newly established Mumbai-based film unit will produce both live-action and animated features, capitalizing on the group's broadcasting strength here via the Cartoon Network and Pogo channels.

Interest in developing original Indian animated features was sparked with the success of 2005's "Hanuman" and its 2007 sequel "Hanuman Returns," both produced by Mumbai-based Percept Picture Co. As a result, Indian majors are eyeing companies like Mumbai-based UTV Motion Pictures, in whose parent Disney recently acquired a 32.1% stake. UTV is producing a slate of animated features, starting with "Alibaba," which is planned for a 2009 release. Similarly, South India-based Ocher Studios is prepping the animated feature "Sultan: The Warrior," which will be released this year.

India's animation, gaming and VFX industry grew 24% to $325 million in 2007, up from $256 million in 2006 according to a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers India and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. The report predicts that the business will touch $1 billion in 2012 and grow at a compound annual growth rate of 25%.

-- By Nyay Bhushan

JAPAN: Sector is thriving, but budgets remain tight without Hollywood backing

The Japanese anime market fell slightly in 2007 from its record showing in 2006, to just under $2.28 billion, while a strong summer boxoffice boosted by major titles including Hayao Miyazaki's "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea" should keep figures solid for 2008.

Mega studio-distributor Toho had a bumper August thanks to a strong anime slate, with "Ponyo" supported by the latest full-length offerings from "Pokemon" and "Naruto." The nation's No.1 distributor clocked up total receipts of $150 million, its best-ever take for the month, up 25% compared with last year.

"Ponyo" passed the $95 million boxoffice milestone in three fewer days than the last domestic film to do so, Miyazaki's 2004 release "Howl's Moving Castle." Toho is no longer predicting it will overtake "Howl's" final figure of $185 million, let alone "Spirited Away," Miyazaki's 2001 blockbuster that remains Japan's all-time No.1 domestic earner at more than $200 million.

Elsewhere, "The Sky Crawlers," by Mamoru Oshii ("Ghost in the Shell"), has been attracting attention worldwide, winning the Future Film Digital Award at Venice and critical acclaim elsewhere. Sony Pictures Worldwide has picked up distribution rights for North America, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand from Production I.G.

Production I.G. was one of the local anime studios, along with Madhouse and Studio 4'C, that collaborated on the "Batman: Gotham Knight" animated tie-ins from this summer's "The Dark Knight."

"It seems de rigeuer now for Hollywood blockbusters to outfit their franchises with anime spinoffs," says Michael Arias, the first foreigner to helm a major Japanese anime ("Tekkonkinkreet") and producer on 2003's "Matrix" spinoff "The Animatrix." "But, without the kind of openness and communication that made 'The Animatrix' interesting, I think we'll just be seeing more projects like 'Gotham Knight' -- beautifully executed but, in the end, fairly unimaginative given the superb pedigrees of their creators."

Arias sees a Catch-22 for anime artists in Japan: Work with Hollywood and lose creative control or work with lower domestic budgets.

"'You'll have complete creative freedom, but we'll pay you peanuts' is an unspoken rule of thumb of animation producers here," he says.

-- By Gavin Blair

KOREA: Vibrant Korean animation sector is well represented at PIFF

Korean animated features are seeing new activity in 2008, with a number of films completed, and one, "YIPSAK -- A Chicken Wild," to be showcased at the Pusan International Film Festival's project market, making it the first animated feature film to participate in the event.

Helmed by Oh Sung-yoon with Shim Jae-myung ("Forever the Moment"), with MK Pictures producing, the film is based on a Korean children's tale and follows the adventures of a hen who, tired of laying eggs, escapes the farmyard to go experience life lessons.

Also screening at PIFF is Min Kyung-jo's "Audition," which is having its world premiere in the Ani-Asia! section. The rock-n-roll driven film, which began production in 1999, is based on Cheon Gye-Young's best-selling comic about a young man's efforts to dig up talented old friends and put together Korea's "greatest band" in the hope of inheriting his father's music empire.

June marked a new technological step in South Korean animation with the release of "Life is Cool" by helmer Choe Equan ("Voice"). The adult-oriented romantic comedy utilizes rotoscoping -- a technique made popular by Richard Linklater's "Waking Life" -- in which live-action film is traced by animators frame by frame. The story revolves around three close male friends who fall for the same woman.

Screening at last year's PIFF, the omnibus feature "If You Were Me: Anima Vision 2" received its local release in April. Produced by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea, the film comprises six animated shorts on issues ranging from the fate of migrant women in international marriages to pressures on Korean males to make it big in an ultra-competitive society.

-- By Nigel D'Sa