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Oriental DreamWorks Rewrites Its China Production Strategy

Live-action features, animated TV, reality shows added, set to accelerate income

Describing Oriental DreamWorks as a “Chinese content company,” the outfit’s head of production Joe Aguilar this week laid out a substantially expanded production mandate for the one-year old joint venture.

Aguilar announced that Oriental DreamWorks now intends to be involved in animated TV production, live action films, live action TV – including reality formats, as well as mobile and Internet content.

Until now Oriental DreamWorks has been pegged essentially as a feature animation company with a physical production facility in Shanghai, where it also hopes to build a diverse cultural and entertainment district.

The rethink gives the shingle a long-term strategy of localization and deeper integration into the mainland Chinese film industry.

Aguilar was speaking at the Beijing Screenings showcase in the Chinese capital and in the week that the company had settled into new offices in Shanghai.

A co-venture between Dreamworks Animation (with a 45% equity stake), and three Chinese partners — China Media Capital, Shanghai Media Group and Shanghai Alliance Investment with a combined 55% — Oriental DreamWorks, is currently developing four feature projects. These include “Kung Fu Panda 3” and one other U.S.-Chinese co-produced animated feature, as well as two live-action Chinese-language projects.

“That’s all kind of a new direction,” said Tracey Trench, Oriental DreamWorks’ head of creative development, and the company’s second senior U.S. executive to relocate permanently to Shanghai. “Part of it is that animated features take so long to make. Just having a company that relies on that is too tough. We want to have income before ‘Kung Fu Panda’ comes out. So it is really super important (to diversify).”

“Kung Fu Panda” is currently scheduled for a release in December 2016 (previously March 2016), with day-and-date outings in China, the U.S. and other territories.

“We are looking at the fact that animated TV here plays very, very young and we’re looking how we can fit that into our strategy. But at the same time we are interested in being in the prime time television market. The animated TV content doesn’t really play there. So that’s why we are looking at live action TV as well. Both scripted and unscripted,” said Trench.

“We are looking at reality competition shows, but nothing that would be too sexual or violent, nothing nasty. We are not going to stretch the brand in those directions ever. But the DreamWorks brand is not just a parent and kids brand anyway. It’s an everybody brand. So that when we talk about being a family brand here we want to clarify that it’s not little kids stuff. We want that reflected in our TV work and our film work.”

Aguilar said that the film production slate will likely be more firmly locked down by February 2014, after the Chinese New Year holidays. In April, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Oriental DreamWorks boss Li Ruigang unveiled “Tibet Code,” a Chinese animated feature based on a series of popular adventure novels that Oriental DreamWorks, DreamWorks Animation and China Film Group would make as a co-venture.

While Fox replaced Paramount as DreamWorks Animation’s distributor from January this year, Oriental DreamWorks has not yet settled its distribution relationships.

Starting with “Kung Fu Panda 3,” the major animated features will be structured as U.S.-China co-productions involving DreamWorks Animation and the Oriental DreamWorks joint venture. Front-end creative work will be originated in the U.S. with Chinese input, before more of the production work shifts to the Shanghai facility.

Trench envisages that Oriental DreamWorks’ live action feature slate will contain bigger-budget titles, taking Chinese themes, made in English and targeted a global market, as well as more locally targeted titles made in Chinese and on a smaller-budget. These may also be dubbed for international release.

Trench says the company will have a “small and smart” script development and project acquisitions team. It may make alliances with other companies in the same space or board third-party projects that are more fully developed. “People are already coming and looking to us as partners that have a strong point of view about content and production,” said Trench.

As well as capitalizing on local themes that will play well in the Chinese market, making the feature films as full co-productions will do away with the need for the movies to apply for an import quota slot. But constructing an animation “pipeline” will take considerable groundwork.

Aguilar explained that China’s co-production regulations are heavily geared to live-action film and that Chinese staff need to learn to work together in ways that may not be familiar to them.

“I’d like to suggest that we get together as the animation community to recommend some new guidelines to the Film Bureau (China’s industry regulator), so that we can see what it takes to be a co-production in the animation industry,” he said.

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