Tradition and modernity key to China's best animated films
The Chinese film market is quickly growing and could soon surpass the U.S., the world leader in film production. China contributed $6.78 billion to global film ticket sales in 2015, which grossed $380 billion, as reported by the China Film Critics Society’s industry research center.
According to the China Animation Film Development Report 2015, 14 imported animation films created about $400 million in profit, while 43 domestic animations earned more than $300 million. The fact that imported animations made more profit than domestic animations -- even though there were far more domestic ones -- revealed that Chinese animation still has a long way to go.
The golden years of Chinese animation were from the 1950s to early 1980s, when filmmakers explored their own path by mixing traditional arts like Chinese water painting, shadow play and puppetry into animated films, with themes often taken from ancient Chinese legends. This led to the creation of original animation classics like Havoc in Heaven and Prince Nezha's Triumph Against Dragon King.
But the glory days of Chinese animation came to an end and Western animation dwarfed domestic productions soon after the Chinese economic reform in the 1980s. That was when Western and Japanese works like Dragon Ball, Knights of the Zodiac and Transformers were imported to China. With more thrilling plot lines, better production techniques and more diverse characters, Western animation dominated the Chinese animation market. These films had an enormous impact on Chinese citizens born in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. These classic shows became an important part of these generations’ childhood, and still provoke a tide of nostalgia when they are adapted from TV to film.
Meanwhile, the Chinese animation industry dwindled, with major companies facing steep competition from imported shows and a lack of investment. Chinese audiences got used to Western-style animation and became pickier and less tolerant of domestic production. This made it harder for domestic production companies to create new animated films. To cater to domestic audiences and save on production expenses, many animation companies mimicked the genres and character design of Disney or Japanese animations. These companies were careful to avoid copyright lawsuits, but their efforts to mimic popular studios upset audiences, making it worse for domestic animation development.
But 2015 marked a turning point. Monkey King: Hero Is Back swept the film market. Unlike other assembly line productions that clumsily mimicked foreign animations, this original Chinese film took eight years of production. It was adopted from the Chinese legend Journey to the West, and was hugely popular in China. The film surpassed Zootopia and Kung Fu Panda 3 in terms of gross profit, making it the biggest movie in the China’s animated film market for 2015. Having a Chinese animated film at the top of the charts is rare, as imported animations usually dominate the market. On of the keys to its success is crowdfunding. Lu Wei, the producer of Monkey King, asked for $150,000 via WeChat in order to fund the film, but ended up receiving more than $1 million, which largely covered the expenses.
In 2016, Big Fish & Begonia, another original Chinese animation, was a big hit Also adopted from an ancient Chinese legend, Big Fish & Begonia made a record-breaking $10 million in ticket sales on the premiere day -- more than any other domestic animation before it. It shares an important similarity with Monkey King: crowdfunding.
Having experienced a slump for a long time, domestic animation is ready for an uptick. The success of these two blockbusters shed light on the route to success for the Chinese animation industry -- instead of mimicking Western animated films, traditional stories and elements resonate with audiences, and crowdfunding can be a great source for independent producers and companies when they can’t find big sponsors.
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