Walt Disney came up with Mickey Mouse. In the 1970s the Japanese blessed us all with the invention of Hello Kitty. But China is still to unleash an iconic cartoon character of its own. Could the solution be five, Mandarin-speaking hamsters?
David Chang hopes so. The chief executive of Cartoon Nation spoke with WiC last week about why China has yet to create a homegrown cartoon character with a global reputation, and what his company is doing to change that.
Cartoon Nation – a Shenzhen-based firm – is the creator of Hamsterland, a cartoon that’s broadcast on 33 television stations across China. Why a hamster? “We picked it (the hamster) because it’s gender agnostic and appeals to every age group. We thought about dogs and cats but they are overused. And we didn’t want to use any of the 12 Chinese animals of the zodiac because of certain bias against specific zodiac signs,” Chang explains.
Indeed, the cartoon industry has shied away from zodiac animals in general after the flop of Legend of a Rabbit last year. The $18 million 3D project, which featured a lowly bunny taking on a skilled panda to save a martial arts school, collected just $2.4 million at the domestic box office. Critics lambasted it as a “straight rip-off of Kungfu Panda”, the 2008 hit from DreamWorks.
China’s animation industry, the world’s biggest in terms of output, has long been rebuked for lacking creativity. Even CCTV, the state-run broadcaster, has warned that Chinese cartoons “are either not inspiring enough or the story simply falls flat.” And Chang, too, has had problems finding the right talent: “It is incredibly hard to hire people, especially when it comes to the creative side of things. But that is not to say that Chinese people are not creative. They just need a creative platform for them to unlock their potential,” he explains. “Currently, we have about 67 people in the office and about 10 of them aren’t local.”
Beijing wants to see homegrown animation become more prominent, even giving it a mention in its current Five-Year Plan policy plans. “The Chinese government has been talking about promoting its cultural industry and animation is one of the areas that is getting the biggest push,” Chang recognises. “They are offering anything between Rmb1 and Rmb3 million to cartoon producers, regardless of the quality. As a result, too many people have jumped on the bandwagon.”
Small wonder, then, that a total of 260,000 minutes of animated material was produced in China last year – according to the China Daily – which was an 18% increase from 2010. In addition to subsidies, authorities have also gone out of their way to restrain foreign competition. In 2006, the media regulator SARFT banned foreign cartoons from broadcast between 5 and 8pm. The ban was extended to 9pm in 2008 and has been cited as a major factor in the success of the TV show Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, China’s most popular cartoon franchise.
But the coddling doesn’t ensure that the characters will be popular with the public. A 2009 study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that only one of Chinese teens’ favourite 20 animated characters came from China. All the others were Japanese.
Blocking foreign participation also stifles the industry’s development. “Without Western know-how and technology, how can Chinese animation succeed?” asks Chang.
Another challenge is government sensitivity to how China is portrayed, even in the cartoon format.
“We have limited creative freedom over what we do. Censorship is so strong it really hinders the creative process at times. For instance, we can’t show blood, guns, witchcraft and absolutely no politics, and anything deemed ‘sensitive’, though what is ‘sensitive’ changes from time to time. So in the end, we can’t use our creativity to drive the content. Instead, we have to build the content around the censors and according to their guidelines,” Chang laments.
It’s hard to see how the adventures of five friendly hamsters could cause much concern. But one of Chang’s hamster characters was called ‘Aiyinsitan’ – the Chinese pinyin for Albert Einstein. This didn’t go down well with the authorities, who weren’t keen on the Western name. Chang had to change it to appease their concerns.
The cartoon market is also competitive. There are about 8,000 animation companies in China, all chasing a slot during primetime.
“Of course, everybody wants to have their programmes aired during prime time on CCTV. But the decision is really not based on how good the storytelling is. It’s all about guanxi. If you have good relations with the senior CCTV manager you have a better chance of getting a slot,” Chang says.
Chang also reckons that it costs about Rmb2-3 million to produce a season’s worth of content (that equates to about 52 hours) but it could take up to two years before the final product is aired – and that’s if it ever makes it to the screen. The waiting period puts enormous pressure on studio cashflows.
Others have tried to bypass CCTV. Take Taomee, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. It launched its Seer animation series on its own online video site v.61.com. The move seems to have been a success in viewership terms. Since its launch in January this year, the animation has been viewed over 100 million times by online video users.
“Everyone is shying away from the old media, such as traditional TV channels,” agrees Chang. “Right now, we are trying to use old media as a platform to promote our cartoon but we are really trying to monetise the show through new media like online gaming and educational app sales. Traditional TV is dead.”
In addition to online games and apps, Cartoon Nation has also signed licensing deals with Japan’s Tomy, which makes children’s merchandise. The company is also hosting ‘carnivals’ in shopping malls, where their cartoon figures interact with children. Next up is a series of stage shows featuring dancers dressed as cartoon characters in Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu.
Cartoon Nation is expecting to make Rmb30 million ($4.74 million) in revenue next year. But it is also planning to export Hamsterland by partnering with a US company to extend its reach. “The goal is to develop a Chinese-learning DVD series for the US market, but instead of teaching them English we will teach them Mandarin,” says Chang.
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