Cannes: Chinese Toon Shingle Mili Launches L.A. Office

Illustration by: Lars Leetaru

The move by Shanghai-based Mili Pictures Worldwide is the latest indicator that China is getting serious about upping its animation game.

Emerging China-based animation outfit Mili Pictures Worldwide has announced the launch of its Los Angeles office, headed up by veteran producer Bill Borden, and will launch its first feature Dragon Nest: Warrior’s Dawn in July.

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Mili, which translates from Chinese as "one grain of rice," has a strategy of competing with top U.S. toons aimed at worldwide family audiences, built on China’s high skill sets and lower costs.

Mili’s chairman Jack Zhang said the opening of the Los Angeles office was a sign that it's serious about collaborating with the best talent in the world film industry. Borden is one of the founding members of Mili and the producer has been described as "the lynchpin between Hollywood and China" on the project.

“While some other companies are exploring the strategy of releasing big-budget movies in the China market, we feel there is even more potential in making family entertainment at a reasonable cost that can travel all over the world,” he said. “With the stunning quality of Mili’s animation and Hollywood experience in storytelling, we think Mili offers something very special.”

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Borden hailed the high quality of the animation and the fact that the studio was backed by great artists and strong resources.

“I saw their animation for Dragon Nest and was blown away by the artistic quality. I saw huge potential to do great work here,” he said.

Other backers for Mili include the country’s largest private equity firm, Shenzhen Capital Group, and the Shanghai-based venture capital firm Ivy Capital.

Animation is emerging as the sector where the long-vaunted collaboration boom between Hollywood and China will finally bear fruit.

With a budget of $22 million, Dragon Nest is one of the first China/Hollywood animated co-productions, and it bows in China on July 31 at China’s biggest video gaming convention, China Joy.

Distribution rights outside of China for Dragon Nest are being handled by All Rights Entertainment Ltd.

The movie is based on the enormously popular online game of the same name, which has 100 million registered users and six million daily users in Asia alone.

Dragon Nest is directed by Song Yuefeng, who makes his directing debut.

The movie is one of the first China/Hollywood co-productions that will repurpose with a Western voice cast to be announced shortly. The film features songs from award-winning Chinese pop star Jane Zhang, and American singer-songwriter Keely Hawkes.

Mili also announced that its next production, the family-friendly comedy Ping Pong Rabbit, has begun preproduction in Los Angeles and is being directed by Mike Johnson, who co-directed Corpse Bride with Tim Burton.

The production will start the animation process in the fall and is slated for release in early 2016. The movie is scripted by High School Musical writer Peter Barsocchini.

Mili was formed by a group of animators in Shanghai who had been working on commercials, shorts and theme park features, when they received backing from China’s biggest online gamer, the NASDAQ-listed Shanda Games Ltd. Their animation facilities are in the eastern city of Suzhou.

Shanda brought Dragon Nest to Mili and collaboration with Shanda continues to give the studio access for film adaptation to some of the most popular game properties in the world.

The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) is pushing the sector -- there is a designated China animation booth at the market in Cannes.

Among the big-name players in Cannes are Wang Dafang, chairman of the TianjinNorth Film Group, and the man who replace him shortly on his retirement, Zhang Rengang.

Also along the Croisette are Gary Zhang, who is co-producing a $40-million animated 3D project, Hong, with Korean filmmaker JJ Kim.

Tianjin North held a big party to promote the second episode of their successful Legend of a Rabbit franchise.

In 2013 there were 29 home-made animation films released in China, with total box office of $103.7 million, up 48 percent over last year.