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Korean cartoons draw audiences

Ambition, talent raise hopes for local renaissance

SEOUL — For years, the standard line on South Korea’s animation sector has been that it is long on technical skills but short on creativity.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the country was a prime destination for outsourced animated work, with companies such as Akom Prods. (which produced much of the animated work behind “The Simpsons” TV series and recent film) leading the way. Nonetheless, few locally conceived and financed projects caught on with auds, or made much of a mark overseas.

But newfound ambition and a rising generation of talent are raising hopes for a local renaissance.

“As Korea’s labor costs rise, the trend has been for animation outsourcing work to move to India, the Philippines, China and other countries,” says Jang Hyeong-soon, marketing chief at Sunwoo Entertainment. “In order to survive, Korean animation needs to shift its focus to locally conceived product.”

Although perhaps too early to pop the champagne, this year has seen a string of small and large successes that suggest the industry’s best days lie ahead of it.

The most eye-catching development is a recent pact among the Weinstein Co., management firm the Gotham Group and the government of Chungcheongnam-do Province in Korea to co-produce and co-finance a slate of six to 10 feature-length, 3-D animated films budgeted at an average $40 million each.

Led by the Media Center in Chungcheongnam-do, production work on the films will be done by a consortium of 30 local animation and CG companies. First project, set to start production in October, is an adaptation of beloved children’s book “A Cricket in Times Square.”

With pre-production and screenplay development carried out in the U.S. and all production to be done in Korea, the project is structured as a 50-50 co-financing deal between TWC and the Gotham Group/Chungcheongnam-do with copyright to be shared accordingly.

This year also has seen some encouraging signs for locally conceived and produced feature animation, which has a long history of box office disappointment.

Sunwoo Entertainment’s “Yobi the Five-Tailed Fox,” from Korea’s best-known animator Lee Sung-gang, topped expectations by earning $3.3 million on its release in January. A restored version of 1976 animated classic “Robot Taekwon V” performed even better with $4.8 million, while “Mug Travel,” a feature-length version of a popular kids series, took a respectable $900,000 on its 66-screen release.

But the most profitable niche within the industry at present is 3-D animated TV programs aimed at kids.

The definitive example is Iconix Entertainment’s “Pororo, the Little Penguin.” A smash hit with local tykes, the adventures of an impetuous penguin and his animal friends have been exported to 42 countries and have enjoyed runaway success in Taiwan. With licensing deals also heading through the roof, Iconix is working on “Pororo’s” third season.

Other success stories include Ocon’s “Dibo, the Gift Dragon,” scheduled to be broadcast in 60 territories including most of Central and South America (through Disney’s Playhouse Disney channel), France (Canal J), Italy (RAI) and Spain (Nickelodeon); “Eon Kid,” scheduled to be broadcast in the U.S. on Kids’ WB this fall; and Sunwoo Entertainment’s game adaptation “Mix Master,” currently playing on Nicktoons in the U.K.

Several high-profile international co-produced series are also in the works.

Local firm G&G Entertainment has pacted with Shanghai Media Group (SMG) on a $4 million 3-D animated series called “Tao.” Comprising 104 segments of 10 minutes each, the series is being 50% financed by SMG.

Also debuting next February will be “Lamimila,” a Korean-French co-production between EBS and pubcaster F5 targeted at preschoolers.

Thanks in part to such series, animation represents the strongest growth area among Korea’s TV exports, with $5.5 million worth of sales concluded in the first half of 2007.

The industry as a whole has also been adept at attracting production finance from overseas, with one report estimating that Korea’s top 10 animation companies received $21.2 million worth of financing from foreign sources, compared with $12.8 million locally.

Local governments are now also starting to pitch in. In addition to the Chungcheongnam-do/ TWC deal, the city of Seoul is assembling a $26.9 million fund to support the production of animation and games.

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