Starlight Media and Lion Forge Animation Heads Break Down Their Global-Content-Minded Partnership

David Steward II and Peter Luo
Courtesy of Lion Forge/Starlight Media

David Steward II and Peter Luo

David Steward II’s Lion Forge Animation and Peter Luo’s Starlight Media have teamed for a joint picture partnership for animated shorts and feature films aimed at an international audience, with a particular push for diversity.

David Steward II’s Lion Forge Animation, based in St. Louis, is one of the only Black-owned animation studios in the U.S. and had its big break with this year’s Oscar-winning short Hair Love. Peter Luo’s Starlight Media, the film arm of Starlight Culture Entertainment Group, is based in China, along with offices in Beverly Hills, and first made waves in Hollywood with its sizable stake in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians.

Though the two companies seem to have little in common, they have teamed up for a joint picture partnership for animated shorts and feature films aimed at an international audience — overcoming distance, language barriers and cultural differences in the process.

Steward II and Luo met at an Oscars afterparty in February and quickly saw opportunity for collaboration; Steward II, the son of billionaire tech entrepreneur David Steward, launched his studio in May 2019 after years of working to expand the comics market. Luo first entered the scene in 2016, when he signed Aquaman director James Wan to an exclusive first-look deal, followed by similar pacts with Roland Emmerich, Robert Zemeckis, Sam Raimi, Sylvester Stallone and Jon M. Chu.

The international co-financing and co-producing partnership is one of the first of its kind, particularly in an era of heightened tensions between the U.S. and China. For each project that emerges from the joint venture, Starlight will maintain distribution, licensing and merchandising rights in the Greater China region, while Lion Forge Animation will maintain distribution and licensing rights in the rest of the world.

Since announcing their collaboration in April, the companies have begun development on a feature-length reimagining of classic Chinese novel Journey to the West and an original animated short inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Journey to the West is a unique opportunity for us, being an American company, to dive into Chinese cultural folklore,” Steward II tells THR. “China is just a wealth of history and storytelling that a lot of people aren't familiar with. This is one of the big epic stories in China and there's so much content there, we're looking at how we take some of that and be able to kind of bring it not only for the Chinese audience, but also something that is a global product as well.”

The Lion Forge exec adds, “We, as a company, have always looked at marginalized voices and voices that typical U.S. productions have kind of looked over.”

That push for diversity and underrepresented voices are among the top goals shared by Steward II and Luo, with a proven track record — the former’s first project introduced the world to the then-unknown Matthew A. Cherry, while one of Starlight’s first investments was in Chadwick Boseman’s Marshall.

It will also be done the right way, Steward II says, with people from a specific race or culture telling that group’s stories. “As we're doing Journey to the West, we're leaning on Starlight and some of their creatives to help make sure that authenticity reads through, and as we're working on other projects in the future that have African American leads, in that case we’re leaning on some of our expertise,” he says.

Now six months into the partnership, the two have figured out how to work together with the help of translators and technology. “Anything can be overcome if you have the right people in place to help with any of the language barrier challenges and things,” says Steward II, as Luo, speaking through a translator, adds, “Our partnership is different from others in traditional single Hollywood partnerships because we can support and ignite the imagination and creativity in a great way.”

And though some of their production plans have been put on hold amid the coronavirus pandemic, Steward II says Lion Forge is taking advantage of the entertainment industry’s animation boom, as animated projects prove much easier and safer to work on without large amounts of actors and crew. He notes how in the U.S., animation has been largely relegated to children and family programming, while in China it’s a more mature medium spanning different genres and subject matters.

“With the shutdown, people are seeking out new content and animation really is the only and the best way for it to get produced,” Steward II says. “It’s just a wealth of opportunity, and hopefully this helps to usher in a new age of animation being treated equally and viewed as as equal to live-action production.” Luo adds that despite the many challenges COVID-19 has brought, “we also see it as a great opportunity for us to bring animated content to global markets, especially the Chinese markets.”

The pair will be bringing some of those opportunities to TIFF, where reps from both companies are registered to virtually participate in the festival, particularly to start early conversations about Journey to the West. Both companies also have a number of individual projects on the horizon, with Lion Forge producing a Hair Love spinoff series for HBO Max and having recently signed a first-look deal with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Kids + Family. Starlight Media is currently in production on its Wuhan! Wuhan! COVID-19 documentary and in post-production on a James Wan project.

“We believe that this globalized collaboration will be the trend going forward and we believe our cooperation will be one of the first of many projects or corporations like this to come in the future,” says Luo, as Steward II adds, “Globally we're going to need to have these kinds of partnerships for the reach, as well as the authenticity, that is so necessary to tell those stories.”