Studio: Mili Pictures Worldwide
Film: Ping Pong Rabbit
Director: Mike Johnson
Writers: Mike Johnson, Bethany Johnson
Release: Chinese New Year 2018
One film that won’t be out this year is Mili Pictures Worldwide’s long-awaited feature, “Ping Pong Rabbit”, which has now missed two planned release dates. In an interview with National Business Daily this week, Mili CEO Jack Zhang said the production was behind schedule, partly due to constant story changes since production began three years ago. The new projection is for a Chinese New Year 2018 release, thus rendering my rooster illustration sadly irrelevant to this post.
The film is co-helmed by the most prominent, and alternative, director among the current crop of Chinese animated features. Mike Johnson earned an Academy Award nomination for co-directing “Corpse Bride” with Tim Burton, and has credits on “James and the Giant Peach” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. Johnson, best known for stop motion, directs alongside regular Mili helmer Song Yuefeng.
Johnson co-wrote the film with younger sister Bethany, based on a screenplay by Peter Barsocchini, about a rabbit that aspires to become the world’s greatest table tennis player.
The studio released the first trailer a year ago, followed by another music video style promo in October. The high production quality has already helped to secure distribution deals in South Korea, across Eastern Europe and Central America.
The production model follows the current trend for Chinese animated features: pre-production and development in Hollywood – in this case a studio headed by “High School Musical”, “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Mission: Impossible 3” producer, Bill Borden – and production in China, specifically a 400-odd person facility in Suzhou.
Headquartered in Shanghai, Mili was founded in 2012 with the support of one of China’s largest game operators, Shanda, providing access to IP from a host of popular titles. The company received financial backing from Shenzhen Capital Group, at the time Forbes magazine’s No.1 ranked venture Capital group in the country, and venture capital firm Ivy Capital.
Spread across business areas including animation, VFX, toys and games, virtual reality, an anime app and an investment fund, Mili describes itself as a “worldwide family entertainment brand” that “aims to make not just international quality films but also stay at the forefront of science and technology for entertainment”.
Like most of the upcoming Chinese animated features, Mili’s stated target is the global market. At the launch of the Los Angeles division in May 2014, former Shanda managing partner turned Mili chairman and CEO, Jack Zhang, explained, “While some other companies are exploring the strategy of releasing big-budget movies in the China market, we feel there is even more potential in making family entertainment at a reasonable cost that can travel all over the world”.
That strategy was exemplified in Mili’s debut movie, “Dragon Nest: Warrior’s Dawn”, the first part in a planned trilogy. Adapted from a game IP with 100 million registered users in Asia, the film made efforts to appeal to a global audience, becoming one of the first China-Hollywood co-productions to be redubbed with an English cast for its limited US release in 2014. Directed by then-rookie Song and made for just 151 million yuan ($22 million), the film was relatively well-received by the limited numbers that saw it, mostly for not taking itself too seriously.
Things haven’t run as smoothly since. Mili’s IP license contract with Shanda expired in August 2015, leading the “Dragon’s Nest” name to be dropped from the second instalment, “Throne of Elves”. Released in August 2016 by Beijing Enlight Pictures, again directed by Song, the film recouped just 24.7m yuan ($3.6 million) in China and has yet to see an international release. The financial blow prompted the studio to cancel the final film.
The company finished Series C financing in May 2016 and announced its valuation as 4bn yuan ($575m), yet last year laid off an undisclosed but significant number of staff that were working on the live action movie “Star Core” in a separate Shenzhen facility in order to focus, according to Zhang, on making animated features.
Mili will not now release any of the three features it had initially planned for 2017 – “Ping Pong Rabbit”, “Star Core” and “Legend of Ne Zha”.
Instead, the company is working with the Shanghai Animation Film Studio to co-produce the “Legend of Afanti”, a remake of the classic 1979 animated series following the travels of a Uyghur philosopher and storyteller. It is also one of six studios working to co-produce a sequel to the 2015 animation “Three Little Pigs”, set for release by April this year. Alongside movie work, Mili plans to adapt ‘Pingshu’ stories – a traditional form of radio storytelling – into short animated episodes. The first will be “Three Heroes and Five Brothers” by renowned perfomer Shan Tianfang.