Chinese-backed animation studio has Hollywood values and global ambitions

Tencent-funded Original Force Animation wants to make movies not just for Chinese audiences, but for global audiences, CEO Harley Zhao tells Richard Verrier

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 25 September, 2015, 9:00pm

In a converted warehouse in suburban Los Angeles, dozens of painters, designers and storyboard artists are quietly huddled at their desks, sketching characters or plotting 3D images on their computer screens.

The walls of the 8,000 sq ft office are lined with colourful drawings of monsters, racing car drivers and ducklings named Chi and Chao - rough scenes and characters for upcoming animated films.

The studio, which officially opened last month, looks just like any other bustling animation house in the area. This one, however, is different: it's the new motion picture division of China's Original Force, a digital animation studio backed by Chinese social networking company Tencent Holdings.

Despite having just 60 employees locally, Original Force Animation has big ambitions. It aims to create Hollywood-style films that can tap into China's vast box office while also doing well internationally.

"We don't want to make movies just for Chinese audiences, we want to make movies for global audiences," chief executive Harley Zhao says. "We really want to work with the best talent around the world."

To that end, Original Force has hired two respected animation executives, Sandra Rabins and Penney Finkelman Cox, to run the studio. The duo helped establish DreamWorks Animation and produced films such as Antz and Shrek. They later launched Sony Pictures Animation, overseeing such films as Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Surf's Up.

"It's a sign that there is serious money being spent by Chinese investors to make movies with artists and executives who are capable of delivering high-quality productions," says Ron Diamond, publisher of the online magazine and resource Animation World Network.

The US studio is the latest in a series of tie-ups between prominent Hollywood figures and Chinese investors. Fosun, Huayi Bros and others have signed deals to finance or co-produce movies and TV shows in the US with such figures as former Warner Bros executive Jeff Robinov, ex-Disney studio chief Dick Cook and producer Robert Simonds. Chinese investors also partnered with Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks Animation to operate a joint venture in Shanghai.

Original Force's expansion into the US signals a new phase in the burgeoning China-Hollywood relationship. No longer content to simply do outsourced work for American studios, Chinese studios are eager to establish beachheads in Hollywood to compete for talent - and a piece of the lucrative global marketplace for animated family films.

The question is whether they will let Hollywood filmmakers make a Hollywood movie. It's still a country where if you say something wrong, you can be arrested
Ron Diamond, Animation World Network

This summer's Monkey King: Hero is Back and the live-action-animation hybrid Monster Hunt have demonstrated the growing appetite for animated films in China and the sums at stake. Monster Hunt alone earned more than US$380 million, making it the highest-grossing film ever in China. Overall box office revenue in China grew 36 per cent last year to US$4.8 billion and is expected to exceed that of the US by 2018.

Yet no Chinese animation studio has been able to crack the global marketplace. Original Force is hoping to be the first. That's a tall order. Even established players such as DreamWorks Animation have struggled in an increasingly crowded market dominated by Disney, Pixar and Universal's Illumination Entertainment. Other Chinese rivals such as Dalian Wanda Group also want to launch animation studios.

There are plenty of hurdles. Training staff in China can be expensive. And Hollywood executives also must find a way to foster creative freedom without offending government censors.

"The question is whether they will let Hollywood filmmakers make a Hollywood movie," Diamond says. "It's still a country where if you say something wrong, you can be arrested."

Rabins and Finkelman Cox accept the risks. "We know it's a challenge, but animation has always been a challenge," Rabins says. "We spent seven years on Shrek. It took a long time to get it right."

Finkelman Cox doesn't foresee a problem with censorship, noting that Original Force is not backed by the government and its films will be inherently apolitical. "We don't need to push that boundary," she says.

We were impressed with the company … and their skill set and the ambition to do quality work, and Harley's goal to be the highest-quality animation company in China
Sandra Rabins

The seasoned animation executives have recruited a team of veteran artists, writers and filmmakers for their inaugural slate. Among them: Christopher Jenkins, a producer of the recent DreamWorks film Home; John Eng, director of Rugrats Go Wild; and Bob Bendetson, a producer of The Simpsons.

The first film, Duck Duck Goose, directed and co-written by Jenkins, is about a bachelor goose who embarks on a journey with two orphan ducklings. Another film called OldZilla, directed and co-written by Bendetson, is about monsters who come out of retirement. The films will cater to global audiences but also feature distinctive Chinese locations and characters. OldZilla , for example, includes a Chinese monster hunter who fights monsters in America.

Although the storyboard work and art direction will come from Hollywood, much of the labour-intensive animation will be done at Original Force's facilities in China, which employ about 1,000 people. Cheaper labour costs in China will enable the studio to make films for less than US$50 million each, well below the typical US budget for a major animated release. "Because they are so economical, they stand a really strong chance of being profitable," Finkelman Cox says.

As a Chinese studio, Original Force won't be subject to the quotas that restrict how much money foreign films may collect in China. The company also has a well-heeled financial backer in Tencent.

The internet giant had an existing relationship with Original Force, which it hired to do the animation on the popular online racing game QQ Speed. Original Force Animation is adapting the game for one of its three upcoming films. The action film, about a brother-sister racing team who work to protect their late dad's legacy, will be directed by Eng.

Tencent declined to comment, but the company's investment is the latest effort to build closer ties with American media companies. Tencent, for example, has partnered with Time Warner to stream HBO television shows and has stakes in US video game companies including Activision Blizzard.

When he founded the company in Nanjing, Jiangsu, in 1999, Zhao had a staff of just four people and did much of the artwork himself. The company specialised in producing high-quality 3D art and animation for game developers and publishers. It became one of the leading outsourcing companies, producing work for Electronic Arts and Activision among others.

Original Force made its foray into Hollywood as the lead animation studio for DreamWorks Animation's Dragons: Riders of Berk, a TV spinoff of the 2010 film How to Train Your Dragon. While working on the Cartoon Network series, Zhao met Rabins, who was a supervising producer on the series.

"We were impressed with the company … and their skill set and the ambition to do quality work, and Harley's goal to be the highest-quality animation company in China," Rabins says. "He loves animation."

Los Angeles Times