Vancouver-based indie production company IndustryWorks’ president Evan Tylor never expected to be co-producing an animated feature, let alone one with China. But when he was presented with the opportunity to jump onboard “Back to the Sea,” which was already in production, he jumped at the opportunity.

Being in business with China opens up an enormous, rapidly growing market share and access to financing. And while China has a limit of only 20 foreign pics a year that are allowed to be released theatrically, pics with a Chinese production company involved are considered domestic, and are exempt from this limitation.

“This woke me up to a whole other possibility,” Tylor says of IndustryWorks’ first co-production with China, via partnerships with Glory & Dream Digital Animation and the Jiangsu Broadcast Co., the second-largest broadcaster in China.

Helmed by Glory & Dream co-founder Thom Lu, “Back to the Sea” follows Kevin, an adventurous young flying fish from the New York Harbor who is captured by a fishing ship and delivered directly to the fish tank of a restaurant in New York’s Chinatown. There, he meets a quiet Chinese boy who has the same longing for excitement and adventure as his finned friend. The two embark on a quest to return Kevin back to the sea.

The voice cast includes Christian Slater, Tim Curry, Mark Hamill and Tom Kenny (“SpongeBob SquarePants”). Pic opened wide across Canada in 2D and 3D on Jan. 27. There are plans ultimately to release the film on a wider scale in the U.S.

Jiangsu will distribute and broadcast the dubbed version in China.

Although the pic (budgeted at $8 million-$10 million) already had funding from Jiangsu, producers were keen to get a North American company involved in order to help breech that market. As a partner, IndustryWorks oversaw completion of deliverables, post-production, distribution, marketing, and agreements with SAG to complete casting, hooking up Slater and Currey.

In return, they now own international ancillary rights outside China.

Tylor believes the pic can find an audience within the North American market as well as China, due to its cross-cultural storyline. “They created a story that’s very Western,” Tylor says.

Lu admits that Glory & Dream considered the market when plotting the pic. “We think New York Chinatown has the perfect combination of Eastern and Western culture,” he says, “this background will not be too Chinese for North American audiences and also not too American for Chinese audiences.”

As the Chinese creative industry continues to grow and aim at branching out into the world market, Lu sees more co-productions with Canada and/or the U.S. “From the artistic side, North America makes the best animated films in the world and it sets the standard,” he says. “Audiences are already used to this standard, so it will help us learn the rules of the North American market sooner.”

Since the animation industry in China is just getting started, there is a lack of professional talent and everything is compressed, Lu says. “If you look at our credits as they roll, you will see the names repeating over and over.”

Although the actual animation for “Back to the Sea” was done in China, by working with North American partners like IndieWorks, Trigger Music, Technicolor, and a recognizable voice cast, Lu hopes the Chinese animation industry can learn by association at the same time it finds a new export market.

In many ways, Vancouver seems to be a natural fit for China-Canada co-productions. It is home to a large Chinese population and has extensive existing businesses ties to China.

Several official visits from Chinese delegations to British Columbia over the past few years have targeted collaboration.

The China Canada Script Competition was unveiled at the 2011 Whistler Film Festival in December. The initiative is spearheaded by Telefilm Canada and China Film Group, China’s largest and most influential state-run film enterprise, and the sole importer of foreign films.

“Iron Road” (2009), was the first co-produced Canada-China film in 22 years under a treaty established in the 1960s. Since then, there have been miniseries’ such as “Marco Polo” and “Son of the Dragon,” several features and documentaries, as well as a number of feature film projects currently being developed.

And although IndustryWorks doesn’t have anything in the pipeline just yet, it is already exploring future opportunities to co-produce with China.

“Culturally they were very eager, very accommodating, respectful, and extremely polite to work with — I have rarely if ever come across that in North American markets,” he says with a laugh, “It was a nice change.”