March 30, 2014
Back in the early 1990s, at the request of film critic Michael Medved, I researched and then published a strategic and statistical analysis demonstrating that Hollywood’s studios were distributing too few children’s, family, and animated feature films. My analysis was picked up by the industry trades and the national press, where it attracted quite a bit of attention and stirred up controversy.
In a matter of days I received calls from the heads of Disney, Fox, Sony Pictures, the MPAA and Blockbuster, and within mere months after that most of the major studios had established new family divisions and ramped up their production of animated features and PG-rated family films. In the years since, these genres have consistently accounted for the studios’ very highest-grossing and most profitable films.
Recently, spurred by intuition, I decided to take a closer look at the situation in China’s film market. After delving into the numbers and the trends, it quickly became clear to me that China’s distributors would profit by distributing more quality films aimed at the family audience.
In fact, if my intuition is correct, family features, and animation in particular, ought to be among the fastest growing segments of the PRC’s film business over the next 3-5 years. Despite heavy investment and rhetorical support from China’s federal and provincial governments, these types of films currently capture a much smaller share of the market in the PRC than they do in North America. But I believe this is beginning to change as the Chinese audience broadens both geographically into the third and fourth tier cities, and demographically to families with children, and as marketing to these audiences improves.
Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures research
Animation is off to a rousing start in the first quarter of 2014, clearing $186 million in revenue in just three months, which puts it on pace to easily beat the previous full-year record of $261 million that was set last year. Given the line-up of animated features still to be released through December, I expect the cumulative gross for animation in 2014 will run to around $400 million. This would put animation’s share of China’s full-year gross at about 8.2 percent, up from 7.3 percent last year.
The first-quarter spoils have gone not just to imported big-budget Hollywood pictures, but increasingly to home-grown fare like The Boonie Bears, ranked third among animated films so far this year with a Chinese record-breaking $40 million gross, and Pleasant Goat: Meet the Pegasus, ranked fourth with $14 million in box office. It’s worth noting that both of these movies are spin-offs of popular Chinese children’s TV series.
Highlights for the rest of 2014 include the recently opened Dreamworks’ pic Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which is well on its way to a China gross of at least $24 million, Blue Sky and Fox’s Rio 2, opening on April 11, South Korea’s Koala Kid (aka The Outback) opening in early May, and Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon 2, expected to open in August. Mr. Peabody‘s stronger-than-expected results will make it China’s third highest grossing non-sequel, non-spinoff animated release to date after The Croods and Frozen.
Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures research
Since China’s film authorities allow only 5 or 6 Hollywood animated films to be imported each year as revenue sharing “quota” films, it will fall to locally produced features to drive most of the family market’s future growth. And there are signs that China’s animation houses are getting ready to play their part. Although technical capabilities and story quality have been lacking in prior Chinese releases, the tide is turning with several new films in development based on screenplays by talented American writers, and funding and services from top Chinese animation houses.
Indeed, I’m so convinced of the scale of this opportunity that I have personally initiated two new animated film projects for China, one in partnership with a multiple Oscar winning animation producer and with a theatrical release commitment from a major Chinese distributor, and a second that has attracted Chinese investors even before the treatment is finished.
If, as I expect, animation’s share of the Chinese market rises to match that of North America, by the end of this decade the PRC will become the world’s biggest audience for animated feature films, with $1.5 billion and more in annual revenues. And that’s not kids stuff.
Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.