On Screen China: Let the Bear Hug Commence—‘Kung Fu Panda 3’

Po visits his kin at Chimelong Safari Park in Guangzhou, China. (Credit: Chimelong)

Po visits his kin at Chimelong Safari Park in Guangzhou, China. (Credit: Chimelong Safari Park)

Kung Fu Panda 3 goes wide in Chinese theaters on Friday, bringing along a tidal wave of buzz and expectation — both for its box office potential and for the future of U.S.-China co-productions.

The film will undoubtedly supplant The Monkey King: Hero is Back ($152 million) as China’s highest-grossing animated film of all time, and, because it’s a co-production, Panda’s gross sales will count towards the domestic (and not the imported) total. Chinese hopes are high, but how high can Panda Po — or Ah Bao in Chinese — and his team of Kung Fu fighting animals soar?

China Film Insider takes a look at several key metrics that will affect how this heavyweight will ultimately perform.

Kung Fu Panda 3 (功夫熊猫3)

China Distribution: China Film Group Corporation (中国电影集团公司)

Buzz — 9/10

Few franchises can compete with the brand recognition Kung Fu Panda has developed in China since the original premiered in 2008, and the number and scope of merchandising/promotional tie-ins for this installment is staggering:

  • An exclusive merchandising partnership with Alibaba’s online marketplace TMall (天猫),
  • Cooperation with Guangzhou’s Chimelong Safari Park (长隆) that brought Ah Bao to visit the world’s only giant panda triplets
  • Kung Fu Panda-branded instant noodles and yogurt from China’s leading ramen manufacturer, Master Kang (康师傅), and top dairy producer Yili Group (伊利)
  • An interactive mobile game created in collaboration with NetEase (网易)

Because it’s a U.S.-China co-production, Oriental DreamWorks (ODW) — the Shanghai-based joint venture between DreamWorks SKG and Chinese investors led by Shanghai Media Group — was able to obtain the film’s release date far in advance, far sooner than do the producers of most revenue-sharing Hollywood imports. As a result, ODW was able to launch Panda’s marketing and social media campaign months ago and build a huge following on China’s Twitter-like platform Sina Weibo.

Audience — 9/10

In Chinese, Kung Fu Panda is said to be a 合家欢 (pinyin héjiāhuān, lit. “family photo”) — meaning a film that the whole family can enjoy together. Its unique mixture of traditional Chinese elements, localized dialogue, Hollywood storytelling and technical prowess will attract audiences  throughout China, including in less developed cities and towns in the interior.

Oriental DreamWorks also enlisted pop stars Lu Han (the same wholesome young man Disney hired to be its Star Wars ambassador) and Jay Chou to solidify the Kung Fu Panda brand with China’s post ’80s and ’90s crowd.

Lu Han starred in the music video Deep, directed by Monster Hunt’s director, Raman Hui. Jay Chou performed Panda’s worldwide theme song Try.

Release Date — 7/10

Panda’s release on January 29 in both the U.S. and China seems to favor the Chinese market — a first for any co-production and a sign of the growing trust between DreamWorks and its Chinese partner.

Kung Fu Panda 3 is a film suitable for the whole family,” said Fang Gan, CEO of Oriental DreamWorks. “In choosing this release date, we are just in time for school winter vacation, Valentine’s Day, and Chinese New Year. I believe during this period when most Chinese families come together that Kung Fu Panda 3 will offer everyone a terrific choice for family entertainment.”

Panda will essentially monopolize the market for 10 days before three huge local productions release in time for the Lunar New Year on Monday, February 8 — Stephen Chow’s comedy Mermaid and sequels The Monkey King 2 and From Vegas to Macau. 

For Panda, the difference between a run of $200 million and $300 million will come down to how many screens it can hold on to once the competition is released, and whether positive word of mouth can carry it through the week-long holiday.

Star Power — 9/10

Oriental DreamWorks assembled a star-studded voice cast for the localized Mandarin version of Kung Fu Panda 3 that includes Jackie Chan 成龙, Yang Mi 杨幂 (The Great Wall), Bai Baihe (Monster Hunt), Huang Lei 黄磊 (Where Are We Going, Dad?), and Wang Zhiwen 王志文 (Chen Kaige’s Together).

They were chosen not only because their voices are recognizable to most Chinese moviegoers, but also because each performer brings with them a key age demographic — a savvy move that paid off previously for French animated feature The Little Prince.

CFI Score — 9/10

Kung Fu Panda became an unexpected phenomenon when it was released in China in 2008, grossing $26 million to become the highest-grossing imported film of the year. In 2011, Kung Fu Panda 2 took in $92.2 million as runner-up to Transformers 3.

The franchise combined two of China’s most treasured cultural touchstones — the giant panda and kung fu — and audiences were bewildered that Hollywood could pull off an entertaining, successful, and — most impressive — essentially authentic portrayal of traditional Chinese culture without input from the Chinese side.

Oriental DreamWorks’ role as co-producer takes Kung Fu Panda 3 a step further; they worked with DreamWorks Animation from the very early stages of pre-production, helping to ensure that minute details in costume and set design were historically accurate. While maintaining the heart of the original story, they worked on a localized script to create a stand-alone Mandarin version that takes into account nuances in language, subtleties in humor, and domestic tastes.

This partnership between DreamWorks Animation and Oriental DreamWorks, this mutual respect between Hollywood and China, should be a beacon to other parties looking to do business between the world’s top two film industries, and its success will serve as a model for years to come.

—Follow Jonathan Papish on Twitter @ChinaBoxOffice