Jeffrey Katzenberg and his team at DreamWorks have already shown that they are willing to travel to China in search of inspiration.
For their blockbuster franchise Kung Fu Panda, they visited the panda breeding centre in Chengdu, before trekking to the walled city of Pingyao, the former banking capital, for ideas for the design of the movie’s Gongmen City.
Katzenberg later said that the second Kung Fu Panda film was a love letter sent by Hollywood to China.
That relationship continues to flourish.
Early this month, Katzenberg was back in the country, this time travelling to Shanghai to “wine and dine” senior officials at the Ministry of Culture, Caijing reports.
The trip saw DreamWorks executives continue their talks to set up of a joint venture in the city as early as January next year.
The plan is for a studio called DreamWorks East to produce animation features.
The joint venture will also feature a consortium of Chinese companies likely to include Shanghai Media Group and China Media Capital. And together, the partners will invest $2 billion over the next five years to develop content aimed specifically at the Chinese market.
Industry insiders say the first animated feature is already being pencilled in for a 2015 release.
DreamWorks is still being cagey about its plans for the project. “As it is an important market for us, and one in which the DreamWorks Animation brand and products have tremendous value, we continue to explore opportunities in China. Any further speculation is premature,” a spokesperson told Reuters.
But the news follows another announcement in September that DreamWorks would allow Youku.com, the online video site, to distribute its two Kung Fu Panda movies. It marked the first time that its content has been made available online (officially) in China.
DreamWorks is playing catch up with rival Disney, which is in the process of constructing its first theme park near Shanghai. The $4.4 billion park is scheduled to open in 2016.
Several Hollywood studios have also been seeking more access to China’s burgeoning movie audiences. In August, Relativity Media formed a joint venture with Huaxia Film Distribution and SkyLand Film-Television Culture Development.
Legendary Pictures, the production company responsible for Inception and The Dark Knight, has also teamed up with Huayi Brothers to create Legendary East.
But Katzenberg told Caijing that DreamWorks is going to take a different approach to its rivals. While he says that Hollywood studios like Disney are more interested in bringing Americana to China, DreamWorks wants to produce content locally and then release it around the world.
Drawing on its experience with the Kung Fu Panda franchise, DreamWorks thinks it can develop global box office hits that also reflect Chinese traditions and values.
Industry insiders are excited. “The arrival of DreamWorks in China will inevitably lead to massive investment in the country’s animation industry, which is lacking in talent,” says Wang Lei, chief executive of Mr. Cartoon Pictures.
Local moviegoers have long complained that the animated films made in China are less entertaining than their Hollywood counterparts, or simply try to mimic their Western peers.
When the domestically-produced Legend of a Rabbit was released in August, many questioned its originality, seeing it as a Kung Fu Panda knock-off.
A key weakness seems to be the storytelling and Yin Hong, a professor of film and television studies with Tsinghua University, told the China Daily that domestic films are still to show that they can develop a narrative that tells a Chinese story but with a perspective that will entice global audiences.
Mark Osborne, one of the directors of Kung Fu Panda, seems to agree, saying that animation filmmakers in China can learn “how to tell an interesting story” from the Hollywood experts.
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