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Kick-starting China's cartoon industry with a shopping mall

KIDS who crave cartoons, and adults too, can get their fix this month when China's first dedicated cartoon shopping mall and fun center opens in Baoshan District. Xu Wei reports. China's animated film industry will get a much-needed shot in the arm this month when a cartoon-themed shopping mall, entertainment and creative center throws open its doors to kids in northern Shanghai's Baoshan District.

The aim is to employ savvy merchandising to create a craving for Chinese cartoons - old standards like the Monkey King and new ones like the "The Magic Aster," "McDull Kung Fu" (about a kung fu piglet) and "Pleasant Goat and Big, Big Wolf."

The city block-sized project for all things animated will be the first in Shanghai and is believed to be the very first in China, according to officials of the 9295 Animation Studio, a joint effort by Shanghai Chiyu Industry Co Ltd and the Shanghai Animation Cartoon Industry Park.

Opening is expected around September 26-27, the last weekend before the National Day holiday when kids are expected to flood the center. Two more cartoon center/shopping malls by 9295 are expected to open in major residential communities later this year.

Much has been said about the need to revitalize China's animation industry with vivid new characters that can appeal to Chinese and international audiences - but effective brand building, marketing, sales and an industrial chain are essential, too. So far they have been lacking.

Dedicated and permanent cartoon center/shopping malls are virtually unknown in China, though animation activities and by-products are enjoying increasing popularity. They are common in Japan and the United States.

The 9295 Animation Studio is stepping in.

The project covers 4,200 square meters on Dahua Road in the Dahua residential community.

It will offer sales outlets for by-products of Chinese and foreign animation (comic books, DVDs, toys, clothing, stationery, housewares), regular cosplay shows, interactive games, lectures for children about animation, lessons in drawing and dubbing, appearances by animation characters, and other events.

There will be cartoon-related food and beverages as well.

The idea is to market Chinese animation and promote the domestic industry.

"The center aims to link up the industry chain of cartoon production, cartoon TV broadcasting, and cartoon products sales," says Ma Renhang, director of 9295 Animation and a major investor.

"These animation centers are the inevitable trend for the domestic cartoon industry," he says. "They build a platform for domestic animation brands and attract more cartoon fans."

One of the major problems faced by China's animation industry is lack of a mature marketing and industrial chain - as well as the much-discussed absence of compelling Chinese cartoon characters to compete with Hollywood and Japanese figures.

China enjoyed a golden age of animation from the 1950s to the 1980s, excluding the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), and is trying to regain those glorious days.

Recent animation features such as "Pleasant Goat and Big, Big Wolf" and "McDull Kung Fu" have not inspired international audiences.

Domestic animation

Since it debuted in June, the animation film "The Magic Aster," based on a Chinese legend, has taken more than 10 million yuan (US$1.5 million) in box-office sales.

Though the figure isn't much compared with the Hollywood animation blockbuster "Kung Fu Panda," which earned 100 million yuan in China, it is fairly good for a domestic animated film.

"We're proud that our film still won recognition despite the fierce competition from 'Transformers 2' and 'Harry Potter' during the golden summer vacation period," says Zheng Hu, deputy director of Shanghai Animation Film Studio, the movie's producer. It will be in the running next year for China's Huabiao Film Awards, Chinese equivalent to the Oscars.

The film has gathered many celebrities to lend their voices, such as NBA star Yao Ming, Taiwanese supermodel Lin Chiling, Hong Kong actor/singer Leon Lai and local stand-up comedian Zhou Libo.

"The star-studded dubbing team will strengthen our confidence to attend international film festivals and launch global distribution," Zheng adds.

The film is about a magical aster flower that helps the kindhearted protagonist, Xiao Lan, overcome a wicked witch. A famous 50-year-old ballad describes the flower that only bloomed for the kind and the industrious.

Fresh movie merchandising such as toys, series books and DVDs will soon enter the market. Throughout the month, the film will be screened for children in rural Shanxi Province.

Over the years the Shanghai Animation Film Studio has created cartoons to delight and influence generations, such as the Monkey King, the Calabash Brothers and the big-ear boy Tutu.

After the 1980s, however, the Chinese animation industry faced enormous international competition from Japan and Hollywood and was unable to keep up.

For years the studio has been trying to blending Chinese classics and originals with modern visual elements. The aim is not to imitate foreign animation but to tap Chinese traditional roots for inspiration.

The studio is an animation division of Shanghai Film Group Corp, which made 216 million yuan in profit last year. Wang Tianyun, vice president of the corporation, says animation film makers have a responsibility to "present the young generation happy feelings and memories of childhood."

"'The Magic Aster' conveys traditional Chinese virtue and ethics, such as perseverance, stamina and tolerance," Wang says. "The unique settings and characters of Oriental flavor will also give foreign kids opportunities to learn about China."

Next year the studio will release another animation feature based on the legend of "The Man Who Moved Mountains."

Following the success of last year's animated feature, "Calabash Brothers," the studio also plans a remake of the 1980s classic series, "The Black Cat Detective."

Last year Chinese animation production totaled a record of 131,042 minutes, a 28-percent increase over the previous year. More, of course, does not necessarily mean better.

The enormous market potential encourages domestic producers to present more original works and collaborate with top-notched foreign animators. Coming Attractions

"The Magic Aster" is one of the seven mainstream films produced by the Shanghai Film Group Corp to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

The other movies include "My Beloved China," "The Great Cause of China's Foundation," "The Message," "Star Ocean," "Exam 1977" and "Iron Man."

"Astor" is the only animation.

These films depict Chinese heroes who contributed to the founding of New China, or focus on tremendous social changes and development.

Nationwide release begins during the National Day holiday.

Shanghai Film Group will also present commercial films.

Post-production is underway for the highly anticipated action epics "Mulan" and "14 Blades."

The corporation will collaborate with veteran Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai on a biopic film about kung fu master Yip Man, and produce a light-hearted sports film with the support of American Basketball Association.


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