Media & Gaming

Got their goat

Violent change looms for cartoon industry

Cartoon w

About a century ago IBM was making weighing scales and cheese slicers. Then it opted to focus on computers instead. Decades later Nokia made a similarly radical switch, ditching paper products and rubber boots to make mobile phones.

Hong Kong-listed Imagi is lot less well known than either of these companies but has also been through quite a transformation. In 2002 it decided to give up on making Christmas decorations and become the Chinese version of Pixar. For the world’s leading maker of plastic fir trees, it was a bold departure.

Formerly known as Boto, the company sold its core business in a deal that shareholder rights activist David Webb then described as leaving investors “with a shrunken shell and a start-up graphics animator”. Despite opposition from fund managers, Boto became Imagi.

It took seven years for Imagi to release the film that it hoped to complete its reinvention. Dreaming of a blockbuster hit in the mould of Toy Story, Imagi resurrected the popular Japanese comic book hero Astro Boy. But he was no Buzz Lightyear and the film flopped at the box office.

Francis Leung, the managing partner of CVC Greater China, then bought Imagi in 2010, rescuing it from the brink of bankruptcy. He also brokered a deal in which Imagi acquired the character copyrights to Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, a popular Chinese cartoon.

The goal was for Pleasant Goat to serve Imagi just as Mickey Mouse had earlier done for Walt Disney – helping it to become an iconic brand and thus enable the studio to grow in related areas. The business did reasonably well, generating profits.

By now Imagi’s shareholders were used to a change of direction or two. But they were nevertheless perturbed when it was announced last month that Pleasant Goat had been sold to a Guangdong-based production house for HK$634 million ($81 million). The South China Morning Post reported that investors were deeply displeased, not least because the trophy asset was offloaded for a fifth less than the price paid for it two years before.

But some are now wondering whether Imagi’s timing was smarter than it seemed after the censors pulled Pleasant Goat off Chinese TV schedules last week, following criticism from CCTV’s Xinwenlianbo, the country’s most-watched TV news programme.

As WiC has reported previously, the series tells the story of a herd of quick-witted goats and their battle with the wolf that hunts them (see WiC87). The censors say these confrontations are littered with “inappropriate language” and “appallingly violent behaviour”, while CCTV’s claim is that the cartoon has been encouraging copycat violence. For example, two young brothers were badly burned in April after being set alight by a nine year-old who said he was imitating a scene from the show. A court case ensued.

According to the Global Times, the father of the two victims blamed violence in the show. Among his complaints: the wolf has been whacked 9,000 times with a frying pan (since the show first aired), while making at least 800 attempts himself to boil the goats alive.

Few netizens seem to think that Pleasant Goat is particularly terrifying with an online poll on Sina Weibo suggesting that less than half of the respondents see the cartoon as too violent (seeing it as more Tom and Jerry than Clockwork Orange).

But the authorities aren’t only targeting Pleasant Goat. The broadcasting watchdog has published a new rulebook and 20 cartoon companies have agreed to eschew violent or uncivilised content. Instead they have promised to “promote good and lash out at evil”.

Ironically CCTV praised the now controversial ‘goat vs wolf’ cartoon back in 2009 as “leading the creative culture industries”. But now Wong Wai-ming, a former director of Pleasant Goat, is worried that the restrictions will suffocate a fast-growing market. As he told News Express Daily: “When Pleasant Goat meets Big Big Wolf, you can’t just have them chitchat all the time.”

What next for Imagi? It says it will be developing new characters over the next two years, as well as producing educational programming for children and teenagers.

Perhaps it will work out. If not there might be more than a few investors ready to do some serious damage with frying pans of their own.

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