Warner Bros, Weinsteins partner with Imagi

BEIJING — It’s no secret China’s cost advantages make manufacturing toys, clothes and fake designer watches a useful option, but now toon producers are waking up to the fact that cheap production costs combined with a love of anime make it a great country for making animated movies as well.

In business terms, it’s only natural that foreign toon firms should subcontract to China — it costs roughly half what it does in Hollywood, making it the logical place to send labor-intensive work. China’s large workforce and cheap costs make it a great place for people to locate production in many industries.

On the animation front, Hong Kong’s Imagi announced a partnership with Warner Bros. and the Weinstein Co., who together put up $27┬ámillion of the $32.5 million production costs on “TMNT” and have now agreed to distribute two new Imagi projects next year: the sci-fi ninja “Gatchaman” and the robot “Astro Boy.”

Both Imagi pics are adaptations of well-known Japanese anime. Indeed, Japan remains the big regional player, to the extent that competition from Japanese toons and “SpongeBob SquarePants” prompted a clampdown on foreign cartoons a few years ago.

For Imagi, the decision to work out of Hong Kong comes despite the fact the city is hardly a hotbed of animation. Hong Kong offers plenty of customers but is better known for world-class chopsocky than great animation classics, plus it is more expensive to produce there than in other parts of China.

Where Imagi has scored high is by recruiting former inkers from top studios, including some DreamWorks veterans, to take on top positions and train the emerging talent. Earning a total of $95 million worldwide, “TMNT” didn’t set any records, but research from Goldman Sachs suggests Imagi makes movies a lot cheaper than its international competition, which could translate into major profits even when their films don’t earn big-studio-size returns. And to do that, the company is recruiting guys like Ken Tsumura, formerly senior VP at Mainframe Entertainment, a Vancouver CGI firm.

Centro Digital Pictures, another Hong Kong company, also has been very busy of late. The studio started off doing some of the CGI for Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” but really came into its own when it co-produced Walt Disney’s first major foray into the Chinese-language toon business, “The Secret of the Magic Gourd.” A tale of a vegetable with special powers, the film fared well in Asia and has been described by some as the shape of things to come.

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