Can Animation Cure What Ails the Chinese Movie Industry?

“Gold rush.” “1920s Hollywood.” “Faster than a speeding bullet.” These are a few ways that film professionals have described China’s booming movie industry. China’s film market, the second-largest in the world, grossed roughly U.S.$2.7 billion in 2012, a 37% increase over 2011 revenues, leading many, including Ernst & Young, to predict China’s eventual global box office dominance. But as American blockbusters continue to garner tremendous revenue from China’s developing market, local filmmakers and studios struggle to have their work recognized on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

Content produced in China still faces major obstacles in its attempts to win over U.S. audiences. Although local studios have produced a number of films that broke Chinese box office records, American audiences have had little or no interest in watching these Chinese features. To cite one example, “Lost in Thailand,” one of China’s highest-grossing hits, was only shown in twenty-nine theaters in the U.S. and met with a poor reception. While certain aspects of industry infrastructure can be blamed, including the lack of distributors and inadequate promotion abroad, 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.

But one medium may be uniquely equipped to sidestep many of the problems that stymie Chinese films. More and more, China is exploring the potential of original animated features.

China’s animation industry is still in its infancy. The animation industry earned an estimated 32 billion RMB (about US$5.2 billion) last year, only 7% of China’s total box office revenue. But it could eventually provide the missing piece filmmakers need to create internationally recognized features. Animation can solve some of the biggest difficulties American viewers have when watching Chinese live action content by eliminating subtitles and creating content appealing to both cultures.

Filmmakers worldwide struggle to produce internationally relatable content, but the gap between American culture and Chinese culture has proven especially difficult to bridge. Audiences may lose interest if they feel films from abroad are too foreign, due to factors including language, history, lifestyle and politics. Live action films are especially difficult to relate to, since they may include unfamiliar cultures and settings. Simply stated, films that have particularly “Chinese” elements, especially those filmed in live action, will not win a global following.

Animated features can appeal to a global audience by alleviating some of the cultural baggage found in live action films. What makes animation popular around the world is the creator’s ability to morph his or her ideas into visual images. Animation removes the audience’s “us vs. them” mentality and draws the audience into the mind of the director. A great example of animation’s global appeal can be found in most Pixar features. The company has produced globally acclaimed features through its use of stunning CGI and its frequent focus on the imaginary lives of inanimate objects. By centering the film’s story on an object common around the world, the director not only has removed any racial factors from the feature, but has also found a relatable topic that a global audience can understand and appreciate. 

Despite Chinese animation’s potential, the industry still has challenges to overcome. As in many sectors of China’s film industry, the lack of creativity appears to be the problem with deepest roots. Animation studios’ lack of creativity is shown through their struggle to produce features that contain both internationally appealing stories and unique animation styles.The main constraints on creativity are an educational system that does not emphasize imagination, and government censorship. While the educational system has been improving gradually, the government is slower to allow risky content onto the silver screen. Another obstacle is China’s culture of lax copyright protection; the industry faces a poor public image due to numerous accusations of copyright infringement. The lack of copyright protection has caused foreign organizations to question their future involvement in China, but it also hinders domestic development, since local creative talents fear trusting the wrong organization with their content.

Sensing the opportunity to penetrate the U.S. market, the Chinese government has tried to promote the animation sector. The Chinese government’s most recent five-year plan aims to increase local animated content production by offering industry investments, tax incentives, and stricter enforcement of copyright regulations. The government hopes that these incentives will help to boost Chinese studios’ collaborations with international entertainment conglomerates. Through partnerships with organizations such as Disney and DreamWorks, local studios can receive the necessary creative direction while learning how to improve industry infrastructure. Studios bound for China can also benefit from these partnerships, since they gain a supply of local animators, Chinese co-production status and access to the Chinese film market.

One film that has managed to catch international attention is Le-Joy Animation’s independent feature, ”Piercing 1″(刺痛我). The film depicts the impoverished life of Zhang Xiaojun, an unemployed factory worker attempting to get out of Beijing and back to his rural hometown. Although the animation quality of “Piercing 1″ is on the lower end, the content of the film is gripping and surprisingly gritty. The film does not shy away from revealing a darker view of modern China, an uncommon tactic in most domestic films. Although the government is apparently not thrilled with the film’s depiction of Beijing, it is likely pleased about the feature’s recognition abroad.

Although local animation studios are still losing box office battles to foreign animated features, they are far from waving the white flag. Every time a foreign animated feature – such as “Kung Fu Panda”– is released within the Chinese market, it compels numerous studios to release competing films. In “Kung Fu Panda’s” case, three new films (“Pleasant Goat and Big Wolf,” ”Legend of a Rabbit,” and “Kuiba”) all hit the big screen to win back Chinese audiences. The outcome is predictable and derivative, but at least it shows that Chinese studios have managed to use the chip on their collective shoulder to fuel productivity and invest in better technology. A testimony to the technological leaps Chinese studios have made can be found by looking at sequels to the animated films mentioned above. Between the local studios’ determination, government financial support, the larger film industry’s momentum, and its adaptable nature, Chinese animation could finally bring the Chinese film industry the global popularity it has been seeking.

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