China’s Joy Pictures — previously a buyer, marketer and distributor best known for bringing “La La Land” to China — is now turning towards the production and sale of animation, and is at AFM for the first time this year as a seller.
So far a hot title has been one of Joy’s few live-action films: “Libai: Fire in the Sky.” A fantasy martial arts pic jointly produced by Joy, Tencent Penguin Pictures and CKF, it streamed exclusively on Tencent earlier this year. All rights have been sold to Korea, and discussions are under way for India and Europe.
Highlights from the rest of its almost exclusively animation slate include two titles co-financed by Joy: “The Legend of Hei,” which grossed $44.8 million in China in September and screened at AFM Saturday, and “GG Bond,” an older IP targeting the 4-to-12-year-old demographic, produced by Winsing Animation.
Joy is also producing a slate of three animated features with Beijing-based studio Magic Hill Animation. “Dragon Palace,” set for an end-of-year 2020 release, tells the story of a village girl chosen as a sacrifice to the sea who is saved by a dragon that then sends her back to the human realm. Also backed by China’s Xiron Entertainment, it is the first feature from UTA-represented helmer Tang Boqing, one of Magic Hill’s co-founders. It also features a creative team with numerous Oscar credits to their names, including art director Chin Ko (“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” “Trolls”), animation supervisor Yuriko Senoo (“Bolt,” “Tangled”) and Mark Fattibene (“Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Puss in Boots”).
“Heart of Steel” is expected in 2022, and will be the first feature from Magic Hill’s other co-founder Zhou Jingqi, who also launched one of China’s largest online comic platforms. It tells the story of a robot engineer and his disabled son who get involved in robot fighting competitions. The third title, “Paper Mom,” is based on a popular comic book and is currently in development.
Joy is also working with Chinese firm Wuzhi Animation to put out another animated take on the legend of “Ne Zha,” which is currently in production and is expected at the end of next year or early 2021. “Ne Zha,” an animated film about the same character made headlines this summer by grossing $703 million to become China’s second-most successful film of all time.
Joy first burst onto the international scene as the Chinese buyer of “La La Land,” which went on to gross $35.9 million. Last year, it imported four foreign titles to China: U.S. films “Wonder” (which grossed $27 million) and “Isle of Dogs” ($6.2 million), and Indian films “Bajrangi Bhaijaan” ($41 million) and “Sultan” ($5 million). Though those films represented just 3% of China’s 80-odd flat fee imported foreign titles, they took home 17% of the total box office generated by such fare, according to Joy CEO Jin Zhang.
The company was founded in 2014, and began its first two years as purely a marketing firm. Thanks to early investment from backer Hangzhou Huarui, in 2016 it started distributing Chinese films, beginning with less-popular titles like “A Chinese Odyssey Part Three” before moving on to higher caliber fare like “A Hero or Not” and “Mr. Six.” It turned to importing foreign titles to further raise its profile, beginning with “La La Land.”
“At that time, most companies overlooked it. We were only able to buy it because no one else dared to buy something that was a musical and an arthouse film. No one thought it’d have any box office,” said Zhang.
He took a gamble, sinking $5 million into P&A in a film that most predicted at the time would earn around $7 million in Chinese theaters — a sum that meant they needed to recoup $28.6 million at the box office just to break even.
But he saw an opportunity with a Valentine’s Day release. No good Valentine’s Day films had been released over the holiday in the past three years at the time, despite the holiday growing in popularity among young viewers. The bet paid off and the film grossed $35.3 million in China.
The firm is now turning to animation because of the growth opportunities in the sector, given that typically, animated films account for less than 3% of China’s total box office, yet in more mature markets like the U.S. or Japan, toons typically comprise 15%-30% of sales.
Animation is also easier to monetize through serialization, products, theme parks and overseas sales. “Animated characters will never grow old or ask for a raise. They’re the real assets,” said Zhang.