China chases Japan on animation

Conference focuses on efforts to boost industry

When it comes to animation, China wants to be the next Japan.

Long envious of its Asian neighbor’s success with anime, China is nurturing homegrown cartoonists and animators and encouraging them to produce films of their own. With the blessing of the country’s Ministry of Culture, provinces and municipalities are staging contests, festivals and conferences, all aimed at getting homegrown talent more exposure -- and some badly needed attention on the international stage.

The holy grail is theatrical, TV and especially home entertainment distribution contracts in the United States that played a key role in helping anime break out of its native Japan and become a true international phenomenon in the early 2000s.  

Leading the charge is the city of Guiyang, capital of Guizhou province in southwest China. Since 2007, the city has been staging an annual Asian Youth Animation and Comics Contest, which this year attracted jurists, speakers, panelists and other participants from more than 26 countries and regions, including the United States.

Speaking during the festival’s opening ceremonies, Gao Zheng, deputy director general for the Chinese Ministry of Culture’s Department of Culture Industry, said the comic and animation industry is a key part of China’s culture industry, which is “one of the most important elements for the prosperous development of social culture in the market economic environment.”

Translation: cartoons are among China’s great economic hopes for the future.

Jerzy Moszkowicz, director of the Children’s Art Centre in Poznan, Poland, called the AYACC one of the most important events “on the world map of animation meetings and festivals” because of its focus on Chinese animation, a talent pool that remains pretty much untapped by Westerners.

“It is a chance to discover young talent,” he said, “and creates an extremely wide forum for the exchange of opinion and ideas.”

“We try to invite famous animators and cartoon artists [to our conference] to inspire the young people,” said Liuyi Wang, general secretary of the AYACC, who added that the conference’s focus is on nurturing and encouraging young talent and helping this talent gain exposure.

This year’s guest list included top animators and cartoonists from all over the world, including Mark Walsh, a supervising animator and director at Pixar Animation Studios.

Wang is convinced Chinese animation can become every bit as big as Japan’s anime business, a multimillion-dollar industry that at one point, in the early 2000s, was the fastest-growing segment in the then-burgeoning DVD sell-through business, according to a January 2003 story in Japan Inc. magazine.

“First of all, China has a huge potential domestic market for animation and its merchandised products,” Wang said. “In addition, the emerging Chinese animation industry is targeting the international market, not just the domestic market.”

Wang said it “it will take some time” for China to develop, produce and market animation with universal appeal, but he believes ultimately the country’s animators will prove capable of doing so, particularly if they can learn the ropes through partnerships and co-productions, ideally with U.S. collaborators and distribution partners.

“The United States and China have formed very strong business and trade relationships,” Wang said. “Each country shares the benefits of these relationships. Now is the time for China to provide culture products, especially animation, to the United States, because we believe more and more American people can understand China better through Chinese culture. This is the reason we should find the channels in America to distribute Chinese animation in your country.”

Wang noted that already, American animation is becoming increasingly popular in China. “So we hope Chinese animation also can be welcomed by the American people,” he said. “Exchange and cooperation of animation films and programs will play a great role in building up our culture and entertainment industry.”

The explosive growth of Japan’s anime business was fueled, at least in part, by the country’s rich tradition with comics and print cartoons, or “manga”—which since the 1950s has become an increasingly important part of Japan’s publishing industry.

Wang is hoping new media, and new content distribution platforms, will do for Chinese animation what manga did for anime.

“Now, more and more Chinese people like to read graphic novels and comics, and we have several big publishing houses that are now publishing and releasing cartoon magazines and books,” he said. “But the big breakthrough for Chinese animation and cartoons may be realized by new media.

“Within one year, it is expected that China will have more than 100 million users of iPhones and other 3G mobile phones. They will use the iPhone and the iPad to enjoy animation and cartoons. They will change the traditional way of reading.”

Already, Guiyang’s work to develop a strong and vibrant Chinese animation industry has caught the eyes of others in the country. Among them are provincial leaders in Guangdong, China's richest province, who are planning to build a $1 billion “animation city,” complete with studios, research and development labs, a production center, an education and training center, a copyright trading center and even “animation-themed apartments” capable of housing up to 8,000 people.

Guangdong is already the world’s largest manufacturing center for toys, and boasts China’s highest GDP. Guangdong Animation City will be located in the city of Conghua, which is home to 13 universities and colleges.

Guiyang, meanwhile, also is ratcheting up its efforts on behalf of Chinese animation. During this year’s AYACC, organizers announced plans to set up an Asian-Pacific Animation & Comics Exchange in the Xiaohe district of their city. The center will include exhibition space, a library, a museum, and animation studios -- as well as a permanent home for the convention.