×

Chinese Animation Gets Annecy Fest Tribute as Country’s Toon Biz Heats Up

The Annecy Intl. Animation Film Festival (June 12-17) will this year honor China, featuring a program of modern and historical Chinese shorts and features and hosting a delegation led by China Media Capital. The timing of the tribute is apt, coming at a potential inflection point for the Chinese industry, as the first output emerges from a pack of newly formed feature animation ventures.

Despite China’s ongoing transition from outsourcing destination to original creator over the past decade, when domestic live-action films accelerated into box office overdrive in 2012, the storytelling deficiencies, low production values and childish content that characterized much of China’s animation in the manufacturing years, still lingered.

For ambitious studios and creators, though, solving the quality issues and winning over a skeptical audience was merely a speed bump in the road to riches. A burgeoning middle class, mushrooming theaters, digital platforms and theme parks, a highly integrated e-commerce ecosystem and a dearth of domestic IP were presenting unprecedented opportunities to create, distribute and monetize content.

The animation earthquake that many had anticipated struck in the late summer of 2015. First, “Monster Hunt,” a live action-animation hybrid, shattered box office records to become China’s all-time highest-grossing film, shortly followed by the “Monkey King: Hero Returns,” which became easily the most successful full CG Chinese feature in history, reaping 956 million yuan ($139 million).

Some had seen it coming, most notably DreamWorks Animation, which in 2012 set up a joint venture with three Chinese investment partners to form Oriental DreamWorks in Shanghai. Following the twin blockbusters of 2015, dozens more hopefuls jumped into the feature animation fray. Some were already in and around the business, including CG outsourcing company Original Force, visual effects house Base FX and live-action studio Huayi Bros., while others such as internet behemoth Tencent stepped over from different industries altogether. To inject experience and expertise, many of the main players have set up development studios in L.A. and installed Hollywood creatives, producers and executives.

Yet success for the crop of nascent studios is by no means inevitable.

Investors have rushed in, looking for unrealistically quick returns, often lacking the stomach for the time and expense that producing quality animated features requires.

The best studios in China are equipped to compete in technical skill and technology, and labor remains relatively inexpensive. Yet storytelling talent remains in short supply, a hangover from a manufacturing past and inadequate education system. Though the shortfall may eventually be remedied by a coming generation of internationally educated Chinese artists who will have better quality projects on which to gain experience, for now many of the main players are developing stories in Hollywood.

Most of the current players say they are seeking to make “global films” that will equally appeal to American and Chinese audiences. The strategy may also be about offsetting the risk of shooting squarely for the risky, crowded Chinese market, where theater ticket sales have slowed and audience tastes remain as diverse, amorphous and unpredictable as ever.

Any films that do succeed internationally will represent a trailblazing achievement for a Chinese film. Then again, if any genre can make the breakthrough, it’s animation. Border-transcending films including “Zootopia” and “Kung Fu Panda” may be from Hollywood, but clearly demonstrate the potential in neutral, non-human characters, localized lip sync and universal themes.

Finding a universally appealing story is easier said than done though, especially one built around Chinese themes. What might appeal to Chinese audiences is often inaccessible for international ones, while trying to be something to everyone can easily alienate viewers on both sides — see “The Great Wall.” Domestic audiences are similarly unimpressed by gratuitous Chinese elements that play no meaningful role in the story.

With many of the new batch of films being developed in Hollywood, to what degree they are Chinese is open for discussion. Aficionados hoping to glimpse a distinctly Chinese identity will probably need to be patient. The next three years will be largely about testing the business model, separating the genuine creators from the gold diggers, and seeing what reacts with the market. The successes may well set the benchmark for what follows.

More Film

  • Gary Hustwit Bob Greenberg, Toshiko MoriBob

    Why 'Rams' Director Gary Hustwit Doesn't Want Studios to Buy His Films

    Most filmmakers dream of scoring a big studio deal, but not Gary Hustwit. The “Helvetica” director applies a “do it yourself” model to the release of his movies. “Rams,” his recent documentary about German industrial designer Dieter Rams, is Hustwit’s latest venture into self-distribution. “I don’t want to be paying someone else’s overhead,” said Hustwit. [...]

  • Ventana Sur: Overview of 2018’s PCI

    Ventana Sur: PCI Showcases the Diversity of Argentine Cinema

    BUENOS AIRES — Mario Vargas Llosa, the great Peruvian novelist, once wrote that reality in Latin America is too compelling to ever be ignored in its fiction. Yet, as WWII raged, Jorge Luis Borges, perhaps the greatest of Argentine writers, pointedly published “Ficciones,” fantasy tales, often philosophical speculation given narrative form. If this year’s PCI [...]

  • Moroccan director Meryem Benm'Barekposes during the

    Young French Cinema Program to Showcase 12 New Films in the U.S.

    Clément Cogitore’s “Braguino,” Meryem Benm’Barek’s (pictured) “Sofia” and Marie Losier’s “Cassandro the Exotico!” are among the 12 recent French movies which will play as part of the Young French Cinema Program organized by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the U.S. and UniFrance. “Braguino” is a documentary feature about two feuding families living [...]

  • Woolsey Fire Malibu

    Many Malibu Areas Still Off-Limits for Filming After Fire

    The California Film Commission has maintained its ban on filming in several Malibu areas hit by the massive Woolsey fire in Southern California last month. The commission announced Tuesday that due to continued clean-up and repair work along Pacific Coast Highway, permits for filming on the highway are not being issued at this time. PCH [...]

  • Against the Clock

    Film News Roundup: Andy Garcia's Spy Thriller 'Against the Clock' Bought by Gravitas

    In today’s film news roundup, Andy Garcia’s spy thriller is sold, “Battlestar Galactica” gets a screenwriter, and Brooklyn Decker gets an award. ACQUISITION Gravitas Ventures has acquired North American rights to spy thriller “Against the Clock,” starring Andy Garcia, Dianna Agron (“Glee”), and Justin Bartha, Variety has learned exclusively. Related France's Kids Programming Network Gulli [...]

  • 'Pacific Rim Uprising' film premiere

    John Boyega in Talks to Star in Legal Drama 'A Naked Singularity'

    “Star Wars” actor John Boyega is in talks to star in the legal drama “A Naked Singularity” with Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions on board to produce. The movie is based on Sergio De La Pava’s debut novel, which centers on a successful New York public defender whose life begins to unravel after he loses [...]

  • Penny Marshall Dead Obit

    Remembering Penny Marshall, Who Forged Her Own Path and Paved the Way for Others

    She was a natural comedian — fearless and funny, willing to trade on her natural Bronx brogue to craft a sassy and street-wise character that was tailor-made for sitcoms. But Penny Marshall, who died Monday night at the age of 75, proved throughout her long career that she had so much more in the way [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content