Tiny Island CEO David Kwok was the key lynchpin in the biggest recent story in Asian animation: a 10-animated feature deal struck between Chinese, Singaporean and Thai partners, valued at $250m. When we meet in London, he is nearing the end of the European leg of a global tour that has taken him from China to Cannes and will conclude in LA for AFM before he returns home to Singapore. He is travel-weary but effusive as he takes me through the deal.
Under the JV, named Shellhut & Tiny Island Pictures, each of the films will be a new IP set up as an SPV with its own investors. The first film will be a rebooted, more mature version of Tiny Island’s sci-fi series Dream Defenders, borrowing storylines from SMG’s live action series Starship MZ: 2049. The content for the subsequent nine films are yet to be decided and may be developed in-house, co-developed or acquired.
Tiny Island, Kwok’s Singapore-based CG animation production and development studio, will handle all the creative work. Unlike many studios in China that establish development branches in Los Angeles, Kwok is adamant that creative direction, preproduction and most of the production will be done in Singapore. That is partly due to the fact he is a long-time champion of the Singaporean animation industry, and partly to avoid the stories becoming “too Americanised”. Portions of the animation will need to be done in China under the terms of the co-production.
For the first film, which will be Tiny Island’s first ever feature, he has assembled an experienced, diverse team on the ground in Singapore. On directing duties is Paul Chung, a veteran, Mandarin-speaking animator and director, with a globetrotting CV that includes 13 years with DreamWorks Animation, and stints with Framestore, MPC India and Original Force, China. The team will also include talent drafted in from the likes of LucasFilm Singapore and some highly experienced, yet-to-be-announced story and visual development artists.
Financing comes from Shellhut Entertainment, a Bangkok-based animation production company with long-standing business relationships in China. Kwok first met Shellhut in 2007, securing the outsourcing contract to animate its debut series Shelldon, a relationship that helped fuel Tiny Island’s early growth.
Wingsmedia will manage distribution, licensing and merchandising in China. The company is part of Oriental Pearl Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chinese media giant Shanghai Media Group and strongly connected to the Chinese government. Its mission is to globalise Chinese content and build international relationships. As part of that objective, Wingsmedia manages the China delegation for major global markets like Mipcom and Kidscreen.
Kwok first met Wingsmedia at Cartoon Connection Asia-EU in Korea in 2015, where he took a punt and asked if he could pitch them his nascent Dream Defenders IP. Besides speaking Mandarin, Kwok believes respect for the special historical kinship between China and Singapore opened the door, explaining, “I feel lucky to have made the connection at this time. In 5 years, the new generation of Chinese executives won’t care or even know about that relationship.”
With financial backers well connected in China and influential government partners, the huge Chinese audience is evidently Shellhut & Tiny Island Pictures’ primary target.
Having taken regular reccies to China and studied the market, Kwok is aware of the challenges that lie ahead. He notes, China’s 6 to 12 demographic is particularly tough because children are preoccupied with studying. Instead, he says they’re targeting slightly older kids, from 9 to 12, up to teenagers, employing more layered storytelling than the Dream Defenders TV series.
The Chinese market is also notoriously unpredictable, especially for animated features. With an average $25m budget per film, Tiny Island’s films are much more expensive films than the common low-budget-low-risk model favored by many Chinese moviemakers, and double the cost of even a relatively high-end local studio like Light Chaser. The latter has failed to recoup its $12m budgets on both its releases to date.
The four Boonie Bears films have made profit in China, but that is largely attributable to the property’s sizeable fan base cultivated by a long-running TV series and an extensive licensing and merchandising campaign. By contrast, Dream Defenders, although it has been sold to 80 countries and screened on major platforms like Hulu, Discovery Family, Kabillion, Planeta Junior, Super RT and DreamWorks TV Asia, is unknown in China. Sci-fi is an increasingly popular genre, with a growing literary following in particular, though there is as yet no animated success story.
Tiny Island is therefore understandably spreading its bets to include the US market. However, Asian films traditionally do very little business in the States, with animated China-hits like Monkey King: Hero Returns and Big Fish & Begonia holding little international mainstream appeal. Tiny Island will be looking at the successful crossovers – movies like Zootopia, Kung Fu Panda and Minions – that tell universally comprehensible stories. Of course, those major studio tentpoles were made with budgets 3 to 5x larger than Tiny Island’s.
This week Kwok is at AFM executing Phase One, targeting US film distributors. Preproduction of the Dream Defenders movie will kick off in 2018.
Kwok built Tiny Island from scratch just over a decade ago. He also founded industry association, the Singapore Animators Connection, and a successful CG training school. His story is well told at cartoonsunderground.com
He has also noted some of his observations on the Chinese animation industry at his Entrepreneurship in Animation blog
He is sharing more about the deal at Animation Magazine’s Global Animation & VFX Summit panel in LA on Tuesday 31st at 4.30pm