Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated speaker on the China Focus panel at CMC this year was Oli Hyatt, co-founder of London-based character animation studio Blue Zoo and recipient of an MBE for his central role in lobbying for the UK’s animation tax relief scheme. Just days earlier, news had broken of a major £30m investment in to Blue Zoo from Chinese investment group CU Animation, to launch joint venture, Lanzu. With the audience settled inside The Hub, I put the first question to Hyatt.
CC: Everyone is talking about the Chinese investment. Can you tell us more about it?
Oli: The reason we did a deal – we’ve always been very protective at Blue Zoo about owning our own company and keeping everything in the UK. We’ve gradually over time, in trying to fund projects, been finding that it’s taking longer and longer. Digby Dragon took 5 years to get the funding. It was that frustration, of spending 5 years, of having to give so much away. When we were approached by a Chinese investor, and their immediate approach was “we will buy you”, my reaction was “no”. But then between those two we thought, is there something we can do that means we give a smaller amount away of what we do now, we can access money, access new markets and still keep Blue Zoo UK staffed, UK based, making the content that we produce. It’s a long way from “we will buy you” to “Blue Zoo can do a lot of what it wants and carry on as it is”. So that’s why it took 16 months and thats the idea behind the deal. It’s not a ‘we will now go in to China and see you later UK”. It’s that they’ve invested in UK talent and UK jobs.
What kind of output can we expect to see from the deal? What’s the plan?
The framework for the money is quite open-ended. We’ve agreed that over the first 5 years of the relationship and the JV, we are going to fund 5 TV series and a feature film. Those are the loose parameters. It could be 2 TV series and 2 features. But the amount of money is there, the framework for getting the projects greenlit is there. We know what we have to do, we know what boxes we have to tick, so it just gives us the ability to put on several shows that are 40%, 50%, half way there, plus tax credit, where we need a bit more. That’s what was taking the 5 years. Now if we can get up to that 50%, 60%, we’re funded, we’re going, we know we can make the content, which is the joy. People are saying well done on the money. But half of it is not about money. For us it’s about making the shows and content we love and kids will love.
How did the relationship with the investors begin?
It’s through relationships I had with UKTI/DIT. There were cultural exchanges where China came over to us. Gina Fegan, who at the time was working at UKTI, introduced us to an investor who came over. He’d been meeting big businesses all day. I’m afraid I always turn up like this (in a hoodie and shorts), so he was bit surprised to see me. He saw us as a creative passion project rather than a huge global multimillion. I was very enthusiastic. Halfway through the meeting he turned to the translator and said something and she turned to me and said “he thinks you look like a monkey”. I though it was a mistranslation, but he then spent 10 minutes on his phone trying to find the monkey that I looked like to show me. It was an animated superhero monkey so it was in the right business. That’s just a small silly example of different ways people work with each other. He had something different to say about every person we’ve presented to him. It’s different ways of forming relationships which is important. But what gave us the trust was that it could work was that when we had spoken to people from the UKTI, and Gina Fegan was involved, it gave us the point of reference of someone we trusted, and being able to talk to people about how China is changing. The rules did change halfway through the deal. We had to rewrite the deal and start again. It gave us great confidence that if we stuck with it we would get somewhere and eventually we did.
More info on the deal can be found here.
More info on the CMC China Focus panel here.