China goes Wilde for “Zootopia”

Zootopia China

Disney’s ZOOTOPIA made box office history this weekend when it became the top-grossing animated film of all time in China with over one billion RMB (more than $174 million USD), surpassing the reigning champ, DreamWorks’ KUNG FU PANDA 3.

In doing so, the talented folks at Disney Animation Studios have engaged Chinese audiences in a way that their colleagues at Pixar still fail to. Despite being revered by Chinese animation students, and by mainland companies aspiring to be “the Chinese Pixar” (usually without any real comprehension of what that entails), Pixar has an ongoing relevance problem in China (demonstrating that “quality” alone is perhaps not the best business model). Forbes addressed this struggle in an article last October – charting Pixar’s inability to outperform middling flicks such as PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR, MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN and THE SMURFS in mainland China – prior to the release of Pixar’s Academy Award-winning INSIDE OUT.

In addition to being a great film by a brilliant director, INSIDE OUT was also a business success by all reasonable accounts: grossing $856.8 million USD worldwide, with $356.46 million USD of that in North America and $500.35 million USD in international receipts. Yet in mainland China, INSIDE OUT only grossed $15.32 million USD: just 3.1% of its international total and a mere 1.8% of its worldwide gross. Only poor BRAVE checks in lower with 0.8% of its worldwide gross coming from China. With Disney’s second-largest theme park about to open in the world’s second largest film market, you can be sure that this resonance gap is a topic of conversation in the Disney board room.

So, what makes China go “Wilde” for ZOOTOPIA? Western studios hoping to appeal to Chinese audiences with the inclusion of superficial “Chinese elements” should note that ZOOTOPIA contains none whatsoever. Based on my observation in Chinese theaters, scrolling through WeChat posts, and conversations with Chinese colleagues, the appeal of ZOOTOPIA in China (and specifically, to China’s young adult females) appears to be: that it is funny but “real” (anyone who has sat all day in a Chinese bank or bureau gets the sloths); Judy is a relatable heroine (particularly with her parents’ pseudo-supportive encouragement to stifle her dreams); and Nick Wilde is a rakishly charming anti-hero (with a wounded heart in need of redemption, no less).

It’s been interesting to see the recent spate of fan art popping up online, depicting a love interest between Judy and Nick (all G-rated, of course – this is China). Nick Wilde appears to have usurped BIG HERO SIX’s Baymax as the ideal Chinese women hope their boyfriends would aspire to. And just as well. Despite earlier online buzz about Baymax being the “perfect boyfriend”, all the ladies in the house should know that Baymax would drive you batty after just a few hours (if that long). Nick Wilde is quicker on the uptake and a lot more fun to hang out with.

Has Disney cracked “the China Code” with ZOOTOPIA? Time will tell. Like most box office successes, the true driving factors are almost always a surprise (if even recognized) and rarely repeatable. In any event, foreign interests will only be allowed a certain amount of success in mainland China. Ever since Chinese media authorities were embarrassed in 2012 by foreign films taking more than 50% of mainland box office receipts, control over global fare has been exerted in increasingly unpredictable and effective ways. Foreign film fortunes will be pegged as a minority percentage of China’s domestic box office for the foreseeable future.

What IS happening is that studios such as Disney are training China’s “cinematic AI”. By way of analogy, Google co-founder Larry Page remarked in 2002 that rather than establishing a search engine, Google was really building an artificial intelligence – one that became “smarter” with your every click and query. Flash forward to 2016, when Google’s “AlphaGo” AI is trouncing human Go master Lee Sedol after being “crowd-trained” via its analysis of 30 million moves from games played by Go experts.

The true beneficiary of ZOOTOPIA’s success is China, who controls the board, controls the players, supports its local teams, and continues to learn and improve with every move. The house always wins.


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