Behind China’s domestic animation slump

By An Wei
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, November 22, 2011
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Post of "Legend of a Rabbit".

The State Administration of Radio Film and Television announced in early summer that in 2010, domestic animation studios produced 220,000 minutes of cartoons. It subsequently called China the world’s biggest producer of cartoons on TV, replacing Japan.

Yet during the summer movie season from July 8 to Aug. 11, five animated features – "Legend of the Moles – The Frozen Horror," "Seer," "The Tibetan Dog," "Legend of a Rabbit" and "Kui Ba" – were released in theaters. All were box office flops.

Disappointment as they were, it was still a chance to identify the shortcomings that still drag China’s animation industry behind those of other countries.

Limited showings

It was a comparatively inspiring time for China’s animation industry this year. Rather than having the summer dominated by imported blockbusters, domestic studios put up a number of worthy competing titles.

The market is without mercy or favors. As the first wave of summer cartoons, "Kui Ba", "Legend of a Rabbit" and "The Tibetan Dog" released around the same time. With a total investment of 55 million yuan, "Kui Ba" scored only 3.5 million yuan at the box office.

"Legend of a Rabbit" did slightly better with over ten million the first week. But with the initial investment of 120 million yuan, the 16.2 million yuan score at the domestic box office still marks it a giant flop. And while "The Tibetan Dog" cost 60 million yuan to make, its returns were a disastrous 1.35 million yuan.

In the meantime, German 3D animated film “Animal United” easily scored 63.35 million yuan at the box office – three times the combined total of three domestic films.

Sun Lijun, director of "Legend of a Rabbit," held the opinion that the audience’s viewing habits lead the domestic cartoons to be neglected.

In the past, the poor quality in most domestic animated films broke audiences’ hearts. As time passed, both audience and cinema managers became reliant on American and Japanese imports, leading to poor turnout and limited showings of subsequent domestic productions. Sun said the government could help increase the number of showings by providing incentives such as subsidies and tax breaks.

"Kui Ba" producer Wu Hanqing also blamed the lack of showings as the biggest problem for domestic cartoons' failure. There were only eighty shows in Beijing on the day of premiere of "Kui Ba," and most of them were placed away from primetime slots. As a 3D animated film, "Legend of a Rabbit" had better luck with over 200 shows per day in the capital.

On the other hand, American blockbuster "Kung Fu Panda 2" had thousands of showings the day it premiered in the city.

To cinema managers, the number of showings was not a valid complaint. "We deal directly with the audiences and accommodate their preferences. A movie only deserves increased showings when the initial ones demonstrate a potential to fill the seats."

Timid and unoriginal

The issue with theater showings, however, is only skin-deep. Problems also extend to market positioning, publicity and the animation production itself.

Although both "Legend of a Rabbit" and "Kui Ba" claim to be Chinese productions, they inherit the production and storytelling styles of those from Japan and the U.S. in order to minimize risk.

"Legend of a Rabbit" tells the story of an average rabbit turning into a hero. The animation quality reflects the increasing abilities of animators in domestic studios. However, the story is plain and uninvolved emotionally, making it hard for the audience to care about its characters.

Unfortunately, this only serves to reinforce a lasting attitude from most audiences that, according to the cinema manager, domestic cartoons are just not worth spending the money when there are better options for the same price.

Online game spinoffs – the third cousin

Later in the summer, "Seer," which premiered on July 28, made 40.15 million yuan, while "Legend of The Moles – The Frozen Horror" started playing on Aug.11 and had a box office score of over 10 million yuan the first week. The combined box office numbers surpassed that of the previous two films mentioned above.

"Legend of The Moles" and "Seer" are in fact spinoffs of online games of the same names from TaoMee. Established in 2007, the gaming company came up with two online titles that became hugely popular among elementary and middle school students in 2008 and 2009.

For the movie releases, the company came up with a gimmick: Young fans can get in-game awards only by watching movies.

Furthermore, buying a "Seer" ticket would earn them time cards to continue playing the subscription-based game. In order to obtaining more time cards, Seer-fans have to repeatedly watch the film.

"The success of 'Seer' is neither due to its story nor any kind of refined production," movie critic Guan Yadi said. "The reasons are TaoMee's market strategy. Through its success, instead of seeing the direction of the film industry, we see the victory of an internet revolution."

So far as China's animation industry is concerned, the success of online game spinoff film is just an anomaly – hardly a case study of value like "Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf." It can represent only a part of domestic animated film.


Post of "Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf".


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