Astro Boy's heroics matched by drama behind the scenes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 October, 2009, 12:00am

Hong Kong cinema history will be made next week when for the first time a film from the city will be released across four continents and 64 countries.

Astro Boy, an animated feature film, premiered in Hong Kong yesterday and goes on general release on the mainland and in the US on Friday, and in other countries over the next few months. The film, made by Imagi International Holdings - a Hong Kong-listed company - in its Chai Wan studios, is based on the character created by Osamu Tezuka, the 'god' of Japanese manga-style cartoons, in the 1950s.

It is a story about the heroic exploits of a powerful little robot built by a scientist in the image of his dead son.

The movie's drama was almost matched by real-life antics involving the making of Astro Boy. At the beginning of the year, Imagi had run out of funds and it appeared unlikely that the movie would be completed, said Richard Witts, who was appointed chairman of the company in February.

'The company was on its knees and it seemed likely to go under,' he said.

The company was unable to pay salaries for 120 staff at its Los Angeles studios who were sacked on Christmas Eve. Despite the financial difficulties, none of the 440 employees at the Chai Wan studios left.

It took a bold decision by Kenneth Hung, chairman of investment house Winnington, to take the view early this year - when global markets were tanking - that Imagi had an exciting future and provided US$25 million as a bridging loan.

Taking what at the time was a huge gamble was one thing, but getting the money to the company was another.

As Winnington was Imagi's second biggest shareholder, this made it a connected party and therefore the loan needed regulatory approval. But it took months to get the stock exchange and the Securities and Futures Commission to agree.

It was ironic, Witts said, that with nobody else prepared to lend money, the company was not able to use Winnington's cash because it was a shareholder.

'With the share price at HK$0.40, compared with HK$4 in 2006, my view was that the market was saying that we were not going to finish Astro Boy and that the company was going to go bust,' Witts said. He felt that if the company announced the rights issue while at the same time guaranteeing to finish Astro Boy there would be a relief rally from investors who had believed the company was finished.

The rights issue subsequently raised US$12 million and unusually was preceded by a placement of shares, which raised a further US$13 million, after Imagi was approached by mainland stockbrokers Guotai Junan Securities (Hong Kong). Most of this was bought by mainland investors.

Imagi's first animated film was 2007's successful TMNT, part of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise. Now, despite the film's release, the drama for the company and its financial backers is still not over. Making a movie is a costly business.

The movie cost Imagi US$65 million to make and the company will spend another US$40 million to market and distribute it.

It is hoping that ultimately it will take a slice of the animation market dominated by Hollywood giants Pixar and Dreamworks.

Animated films, if reasonably successful, make around US$330 million, of which the studio gets a third. This would be a solid cushion for Imagi and success would make it easier to raise further cash.

Imagi is already working on its next film, Gatchaman, based on the anime series of the same name. Should Astro Boy prove to be a big success then there is already a script for Astro Boy II.

But if it flops, 'that will create difficulties for us', said Witts.

It was produced by Maryann Garger and directed by David Bowers, both of Flushed Away fame. Written by Timothy Harris, who also wrote Kindergarten Cop, Brewster's Millions and Trading Places, Astro Boy features the voices of Freddie Highmore, Kristen Bell, Nathan Lane, Eugene Levy, Matt Lucas, Bill Nighy, Donald Sutherland and Nicolas Cage as Dr Tenma.

The Chinese talent includes Aaron Kwok Fu-shing and Ian Gouw.

Astro-nomical figures

Astro Boy will cost about US$105 million in total to make and market

A successful animated movie can net, in US dollars: $330m