Is Shrek a strategic threat? Most parents would argue he is more of a friendly force, especially in encouraging junior audiences into an hour or two of DVD-induced silence on a Sunday morning.
China’s media industry regulator (the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television) might disagree. Over the last three years, SARFT has been clamping down on foreign cartoons, banning them altogether between 5pm and 9pm, and requiring generally that they not exceed 30% of cartoon content on domestic TV.
Why the cartoon cold war? One reason could be irritation at foreign dominance of the sector, and amongst impressionable young audiences too.
The global success of China-theme Hollywood blockbusters like Mulan and Kung Fu Panda, as well as the huge popularity of the Japanese Ultraman franchise, would clearly grate on a few nerves. Even Premier Wen Jiabao, noting the Japanese superhero’s popularity with his own grandchildren, has growled that China should have a stronger animation industry of its own.
In the 1920s, the Wan brothers kept Chinese animation up with the rest of the world, and their first film of major length – Princess Iron Fan – is said to have inspired a future generation of Asian animators – including Guangzhou-born Tyrus Wong, who was a key animator on the Disney classic, Bambi. Then came Mao and the Cultural Revolution.
Recent policy also reflects the wider desire that Chinese firms prove themselves in the “creative industries”, and make money doing so. SARFT predicts a domestic industry generating close to $15 billion in revenues by 2014.
Will it succeed in steering a new era of Chinese animation? Production sites have sprung up around the country, with animation houses competing to fill the SARFT quotas.
One such cluster, the Right Brain Loft in Chongqing, houses a number of new animation design companies, reports Zhou Xu at the Chongqing Morning Post. Even though he was disappointed to meet few animation entrepreneurs on a visit (“You’ve come too early. The creative talents choose to start work in the afternoon and evening”), Xu remains excited about the city’s creative potential.
But this is an industry still reliant on foreign money, as Chinese TV stations are reluctant to pay anything close to the $1,460 a minute that China International Business estimates that most cartoons cost to make. So most production houses work primarily for foreign firms, and use the money earned to support lower-budget material for domestic television.
Whether this is going to be enough to propel the domestic industry into a position of international dominance is questionable. According to research from Fudan University, the top 10 animations in 2008 remained resolutely non-Chinese (nine from Japan and Kung Fu Panda from the US).
Industry expertise is still lacking in important areas. One is the commercial side, where post-production merchandising and marketing spin-offs often generate greater returns than ticket sales.
The industry’s story-telling skills also need improving, says the Guangzhou Daily. Whereas foreign producers are good at developing an underlying narrative that captures audience interest, Chinese professionals have concentrated on animation more as visual art, and have been less interested in the accompanying plot.
Cartoon history has also been conservative in the Chinese context. This dates back to the Wan brothers, who believed that their work should respect deeply engrained cultural traditions.
Some commentators argue that if this endures today, it will be difficult for domestic firms to produce many international hits. They point out, for instance, that few local directors would have dared (as DreamWorks Animation did in Kung Fu Panda) to portray a panda – a cultural icon in China – as lazy and fat.
SARFT’s bureaucrats will be hoping to see more evidence of creative flexibility (all within the general guidelines, of course).
Anything to avoid a situation in which Chinese animators assume the role of Wily Coyote to their international rivals’ Road Runner – a determined pursuer but ultimately always a disappointed one.
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