Illustration by Chris Colman.
Many had already foreseen the enormous potential for Chinese feature animation by the time the “Monkey King: Hero Returns” reaped 956 million yuan ($139m) at the box office in the summer of 2015. For many others across the Chinese media ecosystem, the success prompted a collective mobilisation toward animation.
This year will see the first serious runners among the multiple newcomers to the Chinese animated features race. I’ve picked five films that may be worth a flutter. This very much non-exhaustive list is comprised entirely of Chinese studios making their debut (or in one case second) original films, with directors, writers and producers that run the range from fresh Chinese blood to highly experienced Hollywood hands. I’ll be publishing one per day from Monday onwards, in no particular order. First though, some context.
Before The Gold Rush
While domestic live action went into box office overdrive in 2012, local animation still lagged behind. In its transition from outsourcing destination to original creator, China’s animation industry had, for reasons we need not explore here, endured years of growing pains. The effects – weak stories, low quality production and childish content – had taken their toll. Chinese animation had an image problem.
Yet for creators, whether inspired by genuine passion or by the huge potential rewards, winning over a sceptical public was never more than a speed bump towards that first inevitable box office killing. The “Pleasant Goat” and “Boonie Bears” franchises had caused tremors, before the earthquake truly struck in 2015. First, hybrid live action-animation, “Monster Hunt”, banked 2.4bn yuan ($349m) in theatres (albeit amid controversy over artificially boosted ticket sales). Shortly thereafter, Tian Xiao Peng’s “Monkey King: Hero Returns” became the ‘Big One’ that had threatened for years.
“Monkey King: Hero Returns”
Major live action studios reacted. In October 2015, Beijing Enlight Media formed ‘Color Room’, an animation and live action division serving broad functions from incubating IP, to managing production, to building bespoke teams for projects like Tian’s “The Monkey King” sequel “Havoc in Heaven”, and his high-concept film, “Deep Ocean”.
Color Room has already enjoyed notable successes. It invested in and distributed the hand-drawn/3D hybrid, “Big Fish & Begonia” which in 2016 became the third highest grossing Chinese animation ever, banking 565 million yuan ($82m). Then in December, it distributed Japanese director Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name”, an unexpectedly huge hit that made almost 560 million yuan ($81.5m), becoming the highest grossing 2D animation ever in China.
“Big Fish & Begonia”
Huayi Brothers has also established an animation arm, Wink, to develop four animation features every year and harness what CEO Joe Aguilar calls China’s ‘content wealth’ (ie. telling stories with Chinese elements). Prior to Wink, Huayi had already co-developed “Rock Dog”, a Chinese-American 3D comedy based on a Chinese graphic novel that had been ‘reverse outsourced’ to Texas studio Reel FX.
Internet companies are also investing. Tencent Pictures, the behemoth’s film production arm, is developing and producing a diverse slate of 21 film and TV projects, including a 3D animated-live action hybrid with Turner Asia about Tuzki, a popular WeChat animated ‘sticker’. Fellow giant Alibaba has been quieter on the animation front, but has stated a desire to acquire and develop IP. The company co-financed and distributed Beijing studio Light Chaser Animation’s debut feature “Little Door Gods”.
Light Chaser Animation’s “Little Door Gods”
Perhaps least surprisingly, in a reflection of China’s creative evolution on the world stage, previously service-focused companies are turning to original content. In 2015, veteran Nanjing-headquartered CG studio Original Force formed a features division headed by experienced Hollywood producers Penny Finkelman Cox and Sandra Rabins. A year later, China’s leading visual effects company, Base FX, announced its first original animated feature, “Wish Dragon”.
DreamWorks Animation had seen it coming. In 2012, it struck a $350m (2.4bn yuan) joint venture deal with three Chinese investment companies to form Oriental DreamWorks and circumvent the foreign film quota. “Everest”, ODW’s first original effort (setting aside “Kung Fu Panda 3” which was an existing American IP), is set for release in 2019.
Mili Pictures Worldwide also formed in the same year, based around hugely popular IP licensed from Shanda Games.
A third new player also emerged in the form of Alpha, a Guangdong toy and clothing conglomerate that had previously purchased the “Pleasant Goat” IP. In 2015, the company announced a 900 million yuan ($141 million) acquisition of U17.com, a platform for original internet comics, one of which had been the basis for 2014’s “100,000 Bad Jokes”. The film was a success, not only for taking a tidy 120 million yuan ($17.5m), but also for unearthing a market for adult-oriented animation in China.
Harley Zhao, CEO, Original Force (talking) – Bob Bacon, CEO, Alpha Animation – Melissa Cobb, CCO, Oriental DreamWorks at the US China Film Summit, Los Angeles, Nov’ 2016
China’s growing number of international animation coproduction treaties has also enabled substantial movie deals, like New Zealand studio Huhu’s slate with China Film Animation and Qi Tai Culture Development Group, and UK producer Unanico’s deal with Hunan film distributor China Lion.
It would be remiss of us not to mention “Tiny Times” director Guo Jingming’s first foray into animation, the full CG mo-cap effort “Legend of Ravaging Dynasties”, released in September 2016. Despite plunging deep into the Uncanny Valley and poor reviews, the film earned 383 million yuan ($55.7m), again demonstrating animation’s moneymaking potential, especially with an already popular director attached.
Huhu Studios & China Film Animation’s “Beast of Burden”, set for release in early 2018
The ground in China may be fertile, but the climate is uncertain. Fewer tickets are being subsidised than they were in 2015, sales are growing more slowly than expected and the Chinese box office won’t, as many had predicted, become the world’s largest in 2017. Moreover, competition is fierce. The growing number of new Chinese films will compete with each other and a relentless onslaught of offerings from the established global big guns that make it in to China as part of the import quota.
There is no established Chinese animated entertainment brand, no household name animation directors or studios and very few known properties. In most cases, Chinese studios must develop IP from scratch, guessing what will work, or buy the rights to book, game or toy properties with an existing following and try to convert them in to compelling motion pictures. However, good animation writers are hard to come by, with the best talent historically drawn to the relatively better prospects in live action.
Most challenging of all, the taste of the rapidly morphing audience is as unpredictable as ever. The lazy assumption about unsophisticated masses that eat up Chinese mythology and spectacular visual effects is outdated. Audiences and reviewers are fiercely critical of sub par stories, recently prompting Party mouthpiece People’s Daily to publish an editorial piece slamming ‘vicious and irresponsible’ critics.
The hope is that creators will be emboldened by the successes of ‘alternative’ films like the auteur driven “Big Fish & Begonia”, adult fare like “100,000 Bad Jokes” and Japanese indie efforts like “Your Name”, all of which demonstrate that there is a significant market for edgier content.
“100,000 Bad Jokes”
The unpredictability may partly explain why Chinese animation studios aren’t placing all their bets on the domestic audience. Whether for their first film release or a later offering, almost all studios say the eventual target is the global market.
Wink CEO Aguilar says that for an animation studio in China to succeed, there are two key considerations. The first is that ‘content wealth.’ “Chinese culture is more popular in the global market, and can produce infinite original stories with Chinese elements,” he says. That may be true, but no Chinese film, animated or otherwise, has yet cracked the major US or European markets. Chinese super hits like “The Mermaid” (3.4bn yuan/$495m) did no business in the US. One explanation may be a fundamental difference in storytelling sensibility between the East and the West. Many senior studio executives have pointed to a looser Chinese story structure that is inaccessible to the West.
Western tastes might evolve with greater exposure to Chinese content, but that process will take years. In the meantime, Aguilar’s second point – that movies need to “emphasize international ways of expression, which make the movies globally more acceptable”- is the reason almost all studios with serious designs on the global market have established development studios in L.A. and/or installed Hollywood experience in executive positions.
The new crop of Chinese animation films is bound to bring better character performance and production values. Local audience will no longer accept substandard quality. The most compelling questions circulate around story. The risks might suggest studios will err on the side of caution for their debuts. Will we thus see Hollywood films with Chinese elements – like the Kung Fu Panda franchise – or can a distinctly Chinese tone begin to shine through? Will a director be afforded the time and trust to realize a vision, as Tian did for “Monkey King” or Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun did for “Big Fish”? This year, we’ll start to have some of those questions answered.
Chinese Feature Animation: Five Tips for 2017
Mili Pictures – “Ping Pong Rabbit” (not this year sadly)