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Chinese Animation Targets Adult Market in Bid for Greater Profits

With animated movies now more popular than ever before on the mainland, a number of Chinese film producers are looking to capitalise on this lucrative market by delivering home-grown cartoon features with trans-generational appeal.

Photo: Kung Fu Panda: Huge appeal for children and adults alike. (Xinhua News Agency)
Kung Fu Panda: Huge appeal for children and adults alike.
Photo: Kung Fu Panda: Huge appeal for children and adults alike. (Xinhua News Agency)
Kung Fu Panda: Huge appeal for children and adults alike.

Animation has emerged as something of a sunrise industry over recent years. This been on account of number of mainland producers of cartoon movies changing their market positioning and looking to enrich their storylines in order to appeal to adults as well as children as part of a bid to increase audience sizes. Animated movie producers are now also focussing more on branding, merchandising and spin offs in order to maximise income.

Since early March, animated feature Zootopia has proved a huge box office draw across the mainland. As of 20 March, this latest film from Hollywood animation giant, Disney, had commanded a staggering Rmb1.113 billion in box office receipts within the first 17 days of its mainland release. This beat Kung Fu Panda 3's record takings of Rmb990 million, making Zootopia the highest grossing animated film in the China market to date.

Some industry commentators believe that the continual growth in ticket sales since 2015 for animated features – namely Monkey King: Hero is Back, Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootopia, among others – has, to a great extent, changed the perception of domestic consumers towards such films. It is foreseeable that cartoons have great potential in the Chinese market.

According to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), China created and produced a total of 686 films in 2015, of which 51 were animated. Box office gross revenue stood at Rmb44.069 billion, of which animated films pulled in Rmb4.5 billion, accounting for 11%. Animated films easily transcend cultural and age barriers, besides which it is also easier to produce a series and spin-off products. As a result, the market potential of animated features should not be overlooked.

Traditional Chinese Cultural Elements Well Received

Chinese culture has a long history, providing a vast repository of material for the creative industries. Following the release of Hollywood animated films packed with Chinese elements, such as Mulan and Kung Fu Panda, Chinese filmmakers have gradually come to recognise the positive role of traditional Chinese characters and storylines in animated movies.

The success of characters and storylines for animated movies is due in part to what the target adult moviegoers can recall from their comic-reading childhood. For kids who grew up with Japanese comics, such as Naruto and One Piece, their hero is Uzumaki who vows to be Naruto in Boruto: Naruto the Movie, and Monkey D. Luffy, who wants to become king of the pirates in One Piece. For many in the post-1970s/80s generation, their hero is the one who steps on the clouds descending from the sky, the invincible God of War in a red robe battling against a hundred-thousand heavenly warriors. The success of Monkey King: Hero is Back has given this audience renewed confidence in Chinese animation.

Outside-the-Box Thinking

For animation filmmakers in China, there is a fine line to be trodden between innovation and imitation. While the technical and creative skills of mainland animators should be taken seriously, at the same time they should try to learn from countries with a more established history in making animated features. Care should be taken to use outside source material for inspiration, and not blindly copy from them.

Many industry figures remain upbeat and hopeful that the booming animation market of 2015 will continue into this year. Released on 1 January 2016, the animated film Little Door Gods pulled in nearly Rmb28 million on its opening day. This was Rmb10 million more than Monkey King: Hero is Back, setting a new opening day box-office high for a domestically produced animation film. The all-Chinese production team for Little Door Gods consisted of experienced personnel who had previously worked for world-class Californian animation companies such as Pixar and DreamWorks. Hiring people with relevant foreign experience is clearly a shortcut to creating locally produced Chinese animated films.

Changing Market Positioning, Enhancing the Storyline

The animated film market of 2015 had changed dramatically from that of 2014. Alongside the new highs at the box office came the emergence of increasing numbers of adults in the audience. Starting with Monkey King: Hero is Back, domestic film producers have gradually repositioned their target market for Chinese animation. In the past, the adult audience was largely ignored in the belief that the children's market was an easier place to make money. Now it would seem the real gold mine for animated film is actually the adult audience.

The success of Zootopia has been attributed not just to its comedy, but also to the message it carries. Although an animated film, it examines some mature philosophical questions: should people follow their dreams and whether people who stick to their dreams will succeed. In addition, the plot includes dark crimes, social issues and heroes in the making. The various animals in the movie can be viewed as representing different personality types.

Today, animation is no longer merely for children. It offers an experience that can be shared by moviegoers of all age groups which transcends mere entertainment and culture. The Chinese animation sector has undergone a change over recent years, transitioning from growth in quantity and scale to higher quality and additional commercial benefits.

Animation business operations are also transforming from product-oriented to brand-oriented. Brand building and brand licensing is becoming core to the upgrading and 'leapfrog' development of the animation industry. According to the Report on Brand Licensing Development of China's Animation Industry (2015), released by the SAPPRFT Development Research Center, China's animation brand licensing market was worth Rmb21.6 billion in 2014, ranking second in Asia behind Japan.

Amber Cui, Beijing Office

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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