PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 September, 2011, 12:00am


After watching two editions of the Kung Fu Panda franchise take an estimated 760 million yuan (HK$926.5 million) combined at the domestic box office, China's film industry has decided enough is enough - and sought help.

This year has already seen the release of Legend of a Rabbit, to all intents and purposes a 'home-made' version of Kung Fu Panda (only with a rabbit taking the lead). But that film's less-than-stellar box office returns (16.2 million yuan), the sketchy script and weak production values highlighted just how far mainland animation has to go before it can compete with the work of the major international studios.

The opening in May of a 4.5-billion-yuan animation base in Tianjin - with more than 180 firms signing on for business - was designed to help China's animators learn, develop and fine-tune their craft. But it seems now the industry is also looking a little further afield for inspiration.

As far as New Zealand, in fact, where animation has played a major role in the success of that country's film industry over the past decade, mainly through the Oscar-winning efforts of Weta Workshop's digital special effects in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. To the Kiwis, it's no surprise that China's filmmakers are now looking towards the 'Land of the Long White Cloud'.

'In recent years the film world has really focused on some of the things New Zealand filmmakers have been achieving, and international filmmakers are looking down here to see what we have to offer,' says Chris Payne, a New Zealand Film Commission script executive, at the organisation's office in Wellington.

The first major New Zealand-China digitally animated co-production has already started to take shape. With a US$15 million budget, Downside Story is being put together by the New Zealand film-making team of Michael Bennett and Maile Daugherty and the Beijing-based Xing Xing Digital Corporation, which previously added some graphic flourishes to the likes of the Hollywood-produced Twilight and Tropic Thunder.

The film is set in Shanghai and tells the story of a teenage sewer rat who tries to save a lost kitten. It should reach cinemas in early 2013 and Weta is providing initial concept art.

The presence of Bennett and Daugherty - responsible for last year's well-received dramas Matariki and The Insatiable Moon - has enabled the production to garner financial backing from the New Zealand Film Commission. The project was also pitched to investors at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June.

New Zealand and China signed a co-production agreement in 2010 and Payne says Downside Story is an example of the 'knowledge transfer' his organisation now hopes will occur between the two industries.

'The creative collaboration is just a good fit,' says Payne. 'In this case, the concept comes from Michael Bennett and his nephew, Hamish, who are writing the script, and there is great potential there.'

Payne says there are increasing links between New Zealand and China 'so it makes sense that there will be between the two industries as well'.