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Pearl Studio Forges Its Own Animated Path

With a slate of projects already in play and a partnership with one of animation’s most acclaimed directors, Pearl Studio is striving to create family entertainment with a global reach.

The Shanghai-based company was originally started in 2012 during Jeffrey Katzenberg’s tenure at DreamWorks. At the time the animation studio was called Oriental DreamWorks, and they were successful early on with the release of “Kung Fu Panda 3,” one of the highest grossing films of its day and first official U.S.-China animated co-production. Recently, a consortium spearheaded by Li Ruigang’s CMC Capital Partners took complete ownership of the animation studio. Currently, Pearl is headed by CEO Frank Zhu and chief creative officer Peilin Chou (pictured above).

And it was Chou’s idea to name the company Pearl, invoking the focus on persevering through struggles to create “a beautiful precious pearl.”

The company is in production on two films: “Abominable,” about a yeti and formerly titled “Everest,” and “Over the Moon,” a reimagined version of a classic Chinese myth about a mysterious moon goddess named Chang’e. The latter film is written by Audrey Wells (“Under the Tuscan Sun”), produced by Janet Yang (“Joy Luck Club”) and directed by Academy Award-winning animator Glen Keane. The helmer is known for his work on “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Tangled.” The film will be CG, but will have the hand-drawn look that defines much of Keane’s stylistic approach to animation.

Keane was approached by Pearl at last year’s Annecy to direct the project after he gave a talk about the importance of holding on to a childlike sense of wonder and creativity.

“It’s all about connection and whether I can live in the skin of this character,” says Keane, who believes “Over the Moon” will have international appeal. “And this was a story where that happened for me. I’ve been asked to step into a new world and be myself.”

“Over the Moon” is slated for 2020 and “Abominable” is set for a 2019 release. As they get going, Chou says Pearl wants to release at least one feature film per year.

“Television, digital, consumer products — we see all of these as offshoots of our feature films,” says Chou. “DreamWorks is no longer part owner of the company, but we still work very closely collaborating with them. Obviously ‘Abominable’ is a co-production with them and is being produced on their campus. I think that relationship will continue but a big difference in our strategy is that we’re able to go to any company that we want for future projects. I think the upside of that is that we’re able to go wherever is hospitable for that project. Now, for example, “Over the Moon” is much more suited for Netflix and we’re able to do that.”

Zhu also sees Pearl Studio balancing interests between emerging streaming distribution and more traditional media outlets because countries outside the U.S. have consumers with different habits and interests. No one strategy can completely blanket the world.

“I do see a revolutionary change in content distribution,” says Zhu. “With Netflix and Amazon and streaming distribution, things are changing very rapidly. The same thing is happening in China. The younger generation more and more [has a] habit for content consumption.

“In the meanwhile, what’s unique for China is that major urbanization is still going on in a promising way,” he says. “Hundreds of new cities and towns are being built up, which means there are hundreds of shopping malls being built as well. And they will build new theaters. China is probably the only market that has both very rapid growth in traditional entertainment business and digital streaming business in terms of distribution. So, for Pearl Studio, we have to be very flexible and work with companies like Netflix, but we will still put a lot of focus on traditional theatrical distribution.”

For now Pearl Studio, which does have its eyes on live entertainment in the long run, will stay true to its traditional roots.

“For the next three years I can say we will be 100% focused on animation because it’s the most underdeveloped segment of movie or entertainment content in China,” says Zhu. “The new generation of people in China are becoming parents. They are rapidly developing that family watching behavior and that’s why animation will grow in the next three to five years.”

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