Disney is no stranger to China. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted in Shanghai in the late 1930s. More recently The Lion King was the first Western animated film to show in theatres since the Communists took over in 1949.
So the brouhaha over its ties with Creative Power Entertaining (CPE), a mainland animation company, may come as a surprise. In October, CPE announced that it had signed a three-year licensing deal with Disney affiliate Buena Vista to air the Chinese cartoon series The Pleasant Goat and the Big Big Wolf on Disney channels in 52 countries. The deal covers the broadcasting of the latest 100 episodes of the hit series, says Southern Weekly.
The Pleasant Goat and the Big Big Wolf tells the story of a quick-witted goat and his constant battle with Big Big Wolf. As such, it invites basic comparisons with classic cartoon confrontations of the past (Tom versus Jerry, springs to mind).
Rumours began to surface that the terms extended well beyond broadcasting rights, and that the US firm had agreed to pay Rmb1.6 billion to acquire CPE outright.
That led to accusations that CPE was being lost to foreign ownership. The unease is best understood as part of a longer-term campaign to get more Chinese cartoons onto domestic TV. In 2004, with Japanese, US and Korean content dominating childrens’ programming, domestic cartoon makers had just about been “wiped out”, reports the Beijing Review. Then the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) stepped in with directives affecting more than a third of the country’s provincial stations. At least 60% of cartoon broadcasting time was to come from homegrown producers, the planners insisted.
With government support, animation studios began to proliferate — to more than 10,000 last year, compared with only 120 in 2002. CPE was at the vanguard of the industry’s growth, with Pleasant Goat the poster child for the perceived success of the new policy.
Hence the current controversy, even though Pleasant Goat cartoons have only been running for five years. Lauding such a shortlived enterprise for its iconic cultural status seems a stretch, yet feelings still seem to be running high. Wo Shi Yu Men Ge, wrote in a Tianya.cn article: “Although buying Pleasant Goat isn’t a form of economic blockade, it is a form of cultural blockade. If the souls of our kids are invaded by America, what will China have left?”
Certainly, there are signs that the relationship between the two companies is tightening. Pleasant Goat merchandise is available for sale in Disney’s retail stores and Shanghai Disneyland, which is expected to open in 2014 and is still under construction, is expected to feature Pleasant Goat attractions, says China News Net.
But for Li Sicheng, public relations manager at CPE, it has been a frustrating episode. He told the Global Times (and other Chinese newspapers) that the reports are groundless, and that the sole cooperation between the two companies is the television broadcast license signed last month. Nothing more.
Of course, Disney’s potential acquisition of CPE (or not, as the case may be) renews the debate about Beijing’s overall approach to foreign takeover bids. Last year, the Ministry of Commerce rejected Coca-Cola’s $2.4 billion bid for China juice maker Huiyuan Juice on anti-monopoly grounds, saying the takeover would have given the US beverage group undue influence in the Chinese market.
But what chance for a foreign takeover of any large, embedded domestic brand when something as apparently minor as a five year-old cartoon firm gets the patriotic treatment?
Even so, not everyone thinks that a Disney investment in CPE is a bad idea. “The good outweighs the bad (in this type of deal)… even if it were purchased (by Disney), because it may encourage more animators to follow suit,” says Jin Cheng, director of the Guangzhou Animation and Cartoon Association.
The truth is also that SARFT’s cartoon promotion policies have not been a universal success. Many of the prototype animation outfits continue to focus on high-quantity, low-quality offerings that fail to excite Chinese audiences. Nor do they have any experience in catering to international audiences. And the love for foreign-made content among China’s cartoon watchers shows every sign of resilience. In a poll conducted by Sina.com last year half of the 1,100 surveyed preferred foreign-made animations (think Pixar). The preference was strongest amoung younger respondents, where 60% insisted they preferred foreign fare.
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