Despite China’s rapidly growing film industry, American blockbusters continue to outperform Chinese filmmakers outside of Asia. As a result, Chinese studios are looking to more original animated features as a solution to penetrate U.S. and global film markets.
The question is: Are they looking in the right place?
Tea Leaf Nation describes many of the problems that Chinese films have had in attracting a large American audience.
“Chinese features often have a hard time attracting U.S. audiences due to the films’ government-regulated content, cultural differences from American films, and irritating subtitles,” a piece on the website noted.
However, some of these problems can be easily overcome by targeting global markets with animated pictures instead of live action films. Subtitles can be removed and replaced with language dubs, and production content is flexible enough so that Chinese animation can appeal cross-culturally (at least more so than live action productions).
Max Peskin from Vasoon Animation, one of China’s larger animation studios, told The Diplomat about some of the problems encountered in China’s animation industry. In addition to the problems mentioned above, Mr. Peskin said that “fundamental industry infrastructures such as talent acquisition, promotions, training and distribution” are challenges many animation studios in China face.
Mr. Peskin also said that the infancy of China’s film industry has caused “film companies and animation studios to struggle with collaboration. It is fairly common for these two parties to have difficulty agreeing on effective strategies with programming and promoting animated features…. Outside of promotion and programming, it is difficult for our studio to reach out to the right decision makers (locally and internationally) due to the industry's fragmented state.”
China’s low brand recognition among international audiences has inhibited the industry’s ability to promote their films.
For example, one of Vasoon Animation’s most popular series domestically, Kuiba, turned out to be a failure when it was shown abroad. Last year, Wu Hanqing, CEO of Vasoon Animation explained the film’s poor performance abroad:
“We knew there was demand for this kind of film, but we don't have expertise in marketing and distribution, which remains our biggest challenge. There's a lot to learn. But, after this commercial failure, we now understand the market better. A stronger and more effective marketing campaign is on the table for our upcoming release. We need brand identity."
Despite these challenges, Vasoon Animation’s has enjoyed considerable domestic success with many of its popular productions, including Flying Monkid, Scholar Car, Trees, The Bird, and Kuiba II – which was released in China in 2013 and took home a Magnolia award at the 19th Shanghai Television Festival. He also noted that the company was gradually gaining greater global recognition by participating in film festivals in countries like Canada, Japan, Argentina and France.
If Chinese animation is going to help solve the country’s film industry’s problems, it will have to find a way to increase its profits. Last year, Chinese animated features only earned about 32 billion RMB (approx. US$5.2 billion), or about 7 percent of China’s total box office revenue.
China’s government has realized the animation industry’s struggles, and has consequently been trying to support studios as a part of its 12th Five Year Plan. Tea Leaf Nation explains how the plan will “increase local animated content production by offering industry investments, tax incentives, and stricter enforcement of copyright regulations.” The same article notes that the Five Year Plan will encourage Chinese studios to collaborate with prominent international counterparts like Disney and DreamWorks.
This would be a smart move as established international companies have a lot of experience in the animation and could pass on best practices to their Chinese counterparts.
Indeed, Mr. Peskin told The Diplomat that Vasoon Animation is following this growing trend by collaborating with Folimage Studios on an animated co-production project between China and France. Hopefully by working together with Folimage, Vasoon Animation can further improve its global marketability.
Although these policy measures warrant some optimism, the animation industry still faces an uphill battle. Want China Times has reported that 85 percent of enterprises in China’s animation industry have suffered losses because of high production costs and government policies that “prioritize high-quality made-for-television films.”
In fact, 580 animated TV productions were planned last year but 50 percent of these projects were terminated because of high costs. While subsidies and policy incentives have helped soften the blow, they have not been enough. This is where innovators and new technologies need to be incorporated in order to find new cost-effective ways to make the industry more profitable.
Even though China’s animation industry is not performing as well as many studios once hoped, it is by no means a failure. In fact, China recently surpassed both the U.S. and Japan in being the number one producer of animated work in the world.
And companies like Vasoon Animation, having learned from their mistakes, are on track to becoming successful, internationally-recognized studios.
Elleka Watts is an editorial assistant at The Diplomat.