Will China’s Animation Soon Beat the US and Japan In the Global Market?

Animated film ‘Ne Zha’ broke domestic box office records and earned US$700 million, but can Chinese animation studios beat current leaders US and Japan in the global market?

A Still from Ne Zha

Chinese animation has grown up. Now it wants to grow out.

After Ne Zha broke domestic box office records this summer, a cohort of Chinese animation studios set their sights on the global market. The studios say they think they can create the kind of world-class productions that could turn around China’s underperforming industry.

“As an industry we’ve become more confident telling stories to the domestic market. Now we’re going to tell stories to the world,” says Chris Bremble, the founder and CEO of Base FX.

Base FX is putting the finishing touches to Wish Dragon at its studio in Xiamen. Due for release next summer, it’s a modern-day fairy tale about the moral challenges that emerge when a boy meets a dragon that can make his wishes come true.

“It’s fun. It’s full of heart. It has a global theme. At the same time it allows people to see a vision of China that very few outsiders understand,” says Bremble.


Books of Monsters in the forbidden city is a movie by Nanjing-based Original Force about a girl’s encounter with magical guardians in the palace of the Ming and Qing emperors. Photo: Original Force

Nanjing-based Original Force, meanwhile, is readying Monsters in the Forbidden City, about a girl’s encounter with magical guardians in the palace of the Ming and Qing emperors.

“We have strong historical and cultural elements. We have an iconic theme that everyone can understand. I think it can go abroad easily,” says Harley Zhao, the studio’s CEO and president.

Ultimately, experts say the sheer size of China’s market will give it the advantage needed to play against the US and Japan; the two world leaders in animation today. As with high-speed rail and mobile telecoms before, revenues from domestic sales should be robust enough to nurture world-beating expertise.

Yet insiders also acknowledge there is a long way to go. Performance has generally been lacklustre so far. “The numbers are very low,” says Zhao. “Most domestic animation studios are losing money or just breaking even.”

Very few Chinese animated films have grossed more than US$15 million. And the country has yet to produce an international hit.

Lack of broad demographic appeal is often cited as a reason. Traditionally, Chinese animation has catered to under 15 year-olds, who make up less than 10 per cent of total cinema-goers. Zhao reckons a film rating system, which China does not yet have, is needed to build a family market.

A Still from Ne Zha

On the demographic front, Ne Zha was a milestone. With mature themes, lots of realistic violence and sophisticated storytelling, it captivated the adult market; in particular the key segment of 18- to 28 year-olds. Experts say this was the main reason for it grossing more than US$700 million domestically; the second highest ever for a movie in China.

“Over the past five years there has been a shift to mature-up the content and storytelling in Chinese animation. Ne Zha captured that,” says Bremble.

If Chinese animation has now cracked the home market, what will it take to crack the global market too?

At Original Force, Zhao says an upping of the game is needed in every aspect of production. “We need [a] global talent pool, combining gifted people from different cultures. We also have to learn the Hollywood way of telling stories. They know how to speak to an international audience,” he says.

Bremble says the key will be authentic Chinese culture, but with universal themes. “You have to know who your core audience is,” he says. “If you’re very successful at speaking to that core audience, in a way that is timeless and emotional, then the film can travel.”

– This is originally appeared on South China Morning Post – Style Magazine.