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China's cartoon industry needs a fix

CHINESE animators and film studios are always trying to come up with original characters and stories that can be marketed worldwide and generate lucrative toys and spin-offs.Xu Wei reports on the quest for a Chinese superhero.

Chinese factories turn out around 80 percent of the world's cartoon brand toys, action hero figures and accessories of all kinds. Spin-off products from the animation industry are enormously lucrative.

But China, which is trying to shed the image of the "world's factory," wants to generate its own original animation figures with global appeal - and their byproducts, from comic books and clothing to cell phones and kids' furniture.

How to revive China's animation industry is an ongoing discussion, as is how to develop that industrial chain of byproducts, with all-important protection of intellectual property rights.

The idea is not to promote "made in China," but "created in China." That means developing core competitiveness in a global industry where content is king.

The latest platform for discussion was the recent 2010 CG Expo, an international animation and cartoon exhibition that drew industry figures from China and abroad.

Transition from a manufacturing base to more creative animation studies is essential to develop China's animation industry, according to Liu Yuzhu, an official with China's Ministry of Culture.

He told the gathering that Chinese animation should establish a precise, close and long industry chain, which can generate big profits, not just from screening.

"Brand licensing and sale of derivatives can develop a mature operating and profit mechanism for the industry," he says. "But a good original story and characters is always the basis of this virtuous circle."

Chinese animation flourished in a so-called "golden age" from the 1950s to the early 1980s, but in the past two decades China has not been able to compete with Japanese and Hollywood animations.

In recent years the domestic industry has shown some signs of revival, with the financial and policy support of the central and local governments.

Last year, China produced more than 170,000 minutes of animation, a 31-percent increase over the previous year. But insiders say the very highest-quality work is limited and not all the animation was widely shown. Experts estimate the output of the industry will increase around 20 percent a year for the next five years.

Domestic animation studios increasingly are seeking less imitative and more original, high-quality works in both image design and storyline.

They are learning about advanced marketing and management from foreign animation film companies, says Yu Jie, deputy director of Shanghai Toonmax TV and a producer of China's highest-grossing animation feature film "Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf."

While "Pleasant Goat" isn't in the international ranks, its China promoters increased their returns by decorating some cinemas like fairylands and selling spin-offs.

"We find that big returns come not just from ticket sales, but also from byproducts," says Yu.

Yu adds that Toonmax is collaborating with foreign animation studios in co-productions such as "Ikkyu-san," an anime based on the historical Zen Buddhist monk Ikkyu, "Lauras Stern in China" and "Postman."

Through this process Chinese animators and producers can learn from Japan and Hollywood in creating original stories, marketing them and generating an industry chain of related products with coordinated release.

Learn and assimilate

China's booming animation market is also an attraction to foreign film makers.

Ronnie Carmen, story supervisor of the Oscar-winning animated feature "Up," says US animation studios and Chinese studios must first learn about each other's processes and work culture before embarking on major cooperation.

"Each may be able to offer something new to learn and assimilate," Carmen says. "China's long history and rich cultural heritage can inspire a lot of good emotional stories."

Some high-quality ambitious domestic animation is aiming for the global market, such "The Dreams of Jinsha," a Chinese mainland animated feature now screened in local cinemas.

The film, which took five years to make, centers on a middle school student who is transported back to the ancient Jinsha Kingdom to stop a disaster and save the people.

The film's exotic backdrop, based on the 3,000-year-old Jinsha archeological site (in today's Sichuan Province), Oriental flavor and high artistry have generated considerable interest in Europe.

"So far, distributors from France, the UK and Germany have bought the screening copyright," says Su Xiaohong, the film's producer.

The revenue has already covered the budget of around 80 million yuan (US$11.8 million), he says. "And the movie will be the first domestic animated feature film to be screened in commercial cinemas in Europe in 25 years."

The film imitates the style and themes of world-famous Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's work, and some moviegoers say its storytelling isn't very strong and its lines are not that funny. In that sense there's still a big gap between Chinese mainland animation and foreign animation.

Although adults around the world are increasingly attracted by cartoon works, which can be very sophisticated and topical, Chinese experts say the mainland's animation should still focus on the needs of children.

Over the past 60 years children from four to 14 years old have always been the largest proportion of animation audiences, says Jin Delong, an official from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

"Japanese animation studios are dedicated to nurturing a large cartoon fan base from their childhood," Jin says. "When they grow up, they can pass on the animation viewing tradition to their children."

Additionally, with the aid of new media platforms, the Chinese animation industry has also experienced a boom on the Internet and subway screens.

A lot of young viewers are hooked in characters in series such as "Frog Leon" and "Pobaby." Toy and T-shirt spin-offs are very popular.

To increase young people's enthusiasm for cartoons, will host an online show of creative grassroots animation in September. Interested animators can upload their DIY works on the website and join workshops.


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