Studios Wary of Releasing Animated Films in China

DreamWorks Animation
"Kung Fu Panda 2"

While the country's booming box office is a draw, non-live-action movies are struggling to cash in, making U.S. execs hesitant to enter the market.

For Hollywood animators, China's booming box office is a major draw, but there are regulatory issues to contend with and cultural prejudices to be overcome, U.S. animation executives told a panel at Beijing Screenings.

While China's animation industry is technologically advanced, domestic producers are struggling to compete with slick overseas films, and there are regular bouts of soul-searching about why domestically produced animation has such difficulty competing.

In 2012, 32 animated features had theatrical releases in China, generating box-office revenues of more than $220 million (1.35 billion yuan). Twenty of those films, accounting for $65 million worth of revenue, were domestically produced. In all, animated movies accounted for around 8 percent of China's box-office revenues last year.

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Last month saw the release of two big animated movies, I Love Wolffy 2, part of the successful Chinese franchise, and Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, which took in nearly $7 million in its first week.

However, other domestically produced animation hopefuls have failed to shine. There were high hopes for the 3D animated film Kunta, which had very high production values and used state-of-the-art cloud computing technology, but it took in just over $1 million dollars in the same week.

At an industry panel at the annual four-day showcase of movies made inside China’s state-run studio system, Jo Yan, The Walt Disney Co.'s senior vp studio distribution for greater China, said the prospect of China becoming the world's No. 1 film market was a "very exciting trend."

However, he said that the celebrity effect was missing from animation in China, making it difficult to promote animated films.

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This, combined with the fact that there can be as few as eight weeks between when importers find out whether their film has been approved and the release date of the film, makes marketing difficult, he said. In the West, studios might have a year in which to sell a concept into a market.

Also working contra animation's prospects is the prejudices of Chinese audiences, according to Yan. "They think animation is immature and for kids," he said. Yan also thought that ticket prices, especially for 3D movies, were high relative to the income of the audience.

Joe Aguilar, chief creative officer at DreamWorks' Asian unit, said his company was working on animated films, TV series and live-action movies.

Oriental DreamWorks has four projects in the works right now, two of which are co-productions and one of which is Kung Fu Panda 3, which will be produced in China in 2016 by Oriental DreamWorks Animation and its local partners -- state-owned China Media Capital, Shanghai Media Group and Shanghai Alliance Investment.

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Kung Fu Panda is particularly fascinating to the Chinese industry, as it is a Chinese story, told with cultural sensitivity and charm by Hollywood, achieving something that local studios seem unable to replicate.

Aguilar said that the Chinese animation business needed to learn that creativity is very important, and that every single person working on the project was important, not just the writer, producer and director.

"We want to introduce a lot of these kinds of concepts into this community," said Aguilar. DreamWorks plans to release its first original Chinese-language film in 2017.

Other panelists included Sun Lijun, director of the animation school of the Beijing Film Academy; Qian Jianping, director of the Shanghai Animation Studio; Samuel Choy, general manager of Bliss Concepts in Hong Kong; and Mandy Lau, chief operating officer of Guangdong Creative Power Entertaining.