China: Suspended in Animation
As studios continue to fight for profits in the film industry, China has become an essential target market. China’s film industry earned roughly USD2.8 billion in 2012, making China the second largest market following the United States. In the same year, China developed 3,832 new screens, roughly 10 new screens per day. Between the massive size of the Chinese market and the film industry’s momentum, Ernst & Young reported that China is likely to become the world’s top box office by 2020.
Yet, as the government allows more foreign films into Chinese theaters, many citizens and filmmakers ask themselves, “When will our locally produced content break into the US market?” Despite the success of some of China’s recent features such as Lost in Thailand and Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, these films received little recognition within the US. The lack of US distribution comes as little shock to the film community due to a variety of problems which China faces when attempting to win the US audience, including cultural differences, storytelling preferences, and subtitle disdain. Sensing possible cross-cultural issues regarding film, China is beginning to explore the possibility of shifting the film medium away from live action films towards animated features.
Why animation? Between China’s status as the number one creator of animated work and the success of the film industry’s expansion, China’s animation industry has generated a revenue of roughly RMB32 billion. Although the industry is still in its infancy, revenues increased by nearly 25% over the course of one year. Animation also can cater to some of the preferences of an international audience by providing easily dubbed content and alleviating the cultural baggage of a live action film. Some of the dominant players include Shanghai Animation Film Group, CCTV Animation, Alpha Animation and Zhongnan Animation Company. The industry’s growth has sparked interest from many in China, including the government.
The government has stepped in to help develop the animation industry. The most recent five year plan has a heavy focus on increasing animated series and animated feature films. Some of the goals of the five year plan include the production of thirty animated films, the improvement of the animation industrial chain, the development of animation industry zones, and the creation of five to ten locally produced animated brands with global recognition. The government will provide aid for this type of growth through industry investments, tax incentives and copyright protection. In order for Chinese animation to compete internationally, government support is crucial to overcome the obstacles within the industry.
Although the industry has the technological know-how to create high quality animation, domestic companies still lack the creative storytelling, content catering and animation styles to appeal to a global audience. Some of the other obstacles which the industry faces include effective marketing/promotions and a seamless distribution channel. With a little luck and a lot of patience, the government’s industry development plan could help studios overcome these obstacles. However, the government has made their intent clear: If local companies want incentives, they must think global.
Local animation studios are heavily focused on competing on a global level. Between rising demand and government aid, studios are looking to not only execute international co-productions but also hire international staff. Internationalization will allow studios to experiment with fresh animation styles, develop a personal style and cater their content to a global market. The cooperation between Chinese and US studios will also help build a solid distribution channel. This type of ambition has triggered powerhouse studios, such as Disney and DreamWorks, to partner with China with other studios quickly following their lead.
Ying Xie, a freelance animator from Guilin, China, reflects on the progress of the Chinese animation industry and states, “I think the market is definitely blooming at this time, but in the beginning there are always chaos and not very clear directions. People who work in the Chinese animation industry are still trying to understand the market, the current trends and how it’s competing with the international market. Bringing out creative talent and figuring out how to nourish them will be the next major issue within the next five or ten years.”
Just as Pixar was able to penetrate the hearts of millions by producing features that immortalized inanimate objects with unique computer graphics, Chinese animation studios are frantic to find the right elements to win over not just US viewers but a global audience. As local studios continue to test international waters and new studios continue to sprout (such as Tudou founder Gary Wang‘s studio) the question will remain: What studio will claim the title as “China’s Pixar”?
Max Peskin is the Global Communications Manager of Vasoon Animation.