Stone lions take hold of Chinese viewers

BAN JIN BA LIANG (《半斤八兩》), Magic Dumpling Entertainment’s animated Chinese stone lion buddy comedy and Disney’s first Chinese TV co-production, is now China Central Television’s #1 children’s program, topping the ratings on CCTV14. In reflecting upon the trials, tribulations and ultimate success of the show, I come back to three key factors: people, process and perseverance… (full article on AWN)

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Stone lions take hold of Chinese viewers

Co-pros are no-go

This week, instead of virtual reality, some cold hard reality: there’s no pot of gold waiting for you at the end of the Chinese co-production rainbow.

Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon and co-produced by Universal, Legendary, LeVision and China Film Group, succeeded in eliciting a universal “Meh” from audiences around the world, earning roughly $172 million USD in China (a figure which once would have been astonishing but now is unimpressive) and around $35 million USD in North America. With combined production and marketing expenses in the neighborhood of $250 million USD, and global revenues expected to peter out at $320 million USD (prior to exhibitors taking their share), it’s safe to say that investors in “the biggest-ever U.S.-China co-production” are less than thrilled.

On the bright side, we’ll hopefully be spared a glut of formulaic Great White Hope films set against the backdrop of other historical Middle Kingdom marvels, pimped by puffy Chinese real estate companies with their eager Hollywood studio mascots in tow. Folks actually have to think now, and that’s a good thing. So, let’s elevate that thinking with some straight talk.

First, the unfortunate fact is that…(full post on AWN)

Co-pros are no-go

My 2017 VR Wish List

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My 2017 VR Wish List is up on Animation World Network. Check it out!

My 2017 VR Wish List

The new John Lasseter?

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As widely reported, DreamWorks Animation has been purchased by Comcast’s NBCUniversal for $3.8b USD. Comcast is out to challenge Disney in the family film space, with Universal Filmed Entertainment Group Jeff Shell hailing Chris Meledandri as “the new John Lasseter”.

NBCUniversal intends to retain both the DreamWorks and Illumination animation brands (much as Disney has retained both Disney Animation and Pixar under Lasseter’s creative stewardship), with Meledandri reportedly being offered latitude over DreamWorks Animation’s business along with his ongoing leadership of Illumination.

Given that Illumination’s films outperform Pixar’s in mainland China, Meledandri appears well qualified to reinvigorate not only DreamWorks Animation but Oriental DreamWorks as well, adding fuel to the fire in what will soon be the world’s biggest content market.

Jeffrey Katzenberg is now effectively relegated to an advisory role as a consultant to NBCUniversal and chairman of the newly-minted DreamWorks New Media, with oversight of AwesomenessTV and Nova, but no further authority over DreamWork’s film and television operations. Helping the medicine go down will be the more than $400m USD that Katzenberg stands to earn from the buyout of his stake in DreamWorks.

At an all-hands meeting at the company’s Glendale headquarters, Jeffrey reassured everyone that: “The next chapter of our company’s historic journey begins today, and as I’ve said many times, there is no doubt that the best days for DreamWorks lie ahead.”

No doubt for the corporate entity, but those people affected by the layoffs at Disney Animation in the years following the Pixar acquisition (including many folks now currently employed at DreamWorks) know that there are other shoes yet to drop.

The new John Lasseter?

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.

China goes Wilde for “Zootopia”

Consider yourself warned

ed catmull

Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, who famously derided stereoscopic films as a fad, and declared Pixar’s steadfast stance against sequels, has now declared virtual reality unsuitable for storytelling.

Catmull’s thesis is that people have been trying to tell stories in VR for over 40 years, and would have succeeded by now if this were possible.  His dismissal of recent advances in VR technology ignores the precedent of increased accessibility & sophistication of a given medium attracting transformative creative talent (such as the artists & writers drawn to Pixar decades ago, and the Pixar veterans now signing on with Oculus and other VR players).

Ironies abound, but one thing is certain:  stay tuned for Pixar’s eventual embrace of virtual reality as a storytelling medium.

Consider yourself warned