Blazing the trail for Canada-China co-productions:

It's not yet a 21st century spice trail, but animation house Cinar is hoping to forge a new TV trade route. Two new co-production announcements signal Cinar's desire to sell its wares in the Orient. By signing deals with China Central...
April 1, 1999

It’s not yet a 21st century spice trail, but animation house Cinar is hoping to forge a new TV trade route. Two new co-production announcements signal Cinar’s desire to sell its wares in the Orient. By signing deals with China Central Television (CCTV) in Beijing and Shanghai Animation Film Studio, a subsidiary of Shanghai Television, Cinar gains access to the untapped 1.2-billion Chinese market. In turn, the Beijing and Shanghai TV stations hope to bring their high-profile series to Western audiences.

Opening doors in China

‘As Canadians, we partner up with people all over the world to get financial and resource support for our product,’ says Dan Tierney, VP of business development at Montreal-based Cinar. ‘With the library we have and the limited sales we’ve achieved [in the region], we felt that one way to access that part of the world was through production arrangements, in which companies can get to know each other intimately, and doors open afterwards,’ adds Tierney.

Establishing a toehold in China means currying favor with key personnel and officials. Even the mighty Disney corporation learned the hard way. After the entertainment giant criticized the Chinese government’s ban of Martin Scorcese’s film about the Dalai Lama, Kundun, Disney’s hit film Mulan was shut out of the market. Only after strenuous negotiations did China lift its Disney ban in February. With its new strategic alliances, Cinar hopes to sidestep similar distribution headaches.

Journey to the West: Bringing a

classic Chinese tale to TV

The co-production agreements announced last November and January are the fruits of Cinar president and co-CEO Ronald Weinberg’s three-week trip to China last November as part of the China Trade Mission hosted by Telefilm Canada. The delegation arranged for Weinberg to visit CCTV, which has its own in-house production and distribution arm. ‘CCTV had this Cadillac series that they had invested a lot of money and time into, and they were courting international partners to do it with them,’ says Tierney.

His Chinese counterpart is Xi Bing, deputy GM of the China TV Program Agency, a distribution subsidiary of CCTV. ‘Our basic policy is to open our door to the outside world, and we were seeking foreign companies with enough experience in this field,’ says Mr. Xi, who coordinates sales of CCTV programming inside China.

CCTV is not a neophyte on the co-production scene. For a decade, it has worked with Australia’s Southern Star to produce the children’s show Magic Mountain, a low-budget puppet and live-action series that airs in 90 countries. But for its big US$14-million flagship animation series, CCTV sought a partner with strong European ties and knowledge of the ancillary market. For these reasons, Cinar appealed to China’s largest broadcaster, which operates eight channels.

‘Ron visited Beijing, he was invited to CCTV, and he saw some programs that are in production,’ adds Mr. Xi. ‘Both sides had very good discussions, and decided to enter into the co-production announced in January.’

Journey to the West, Legends of the Monkey King is a computer-generated animation series based on a 400-year-old Chinese story written by Wu Cheng’en. The author, who lived in the late Ming Dynasty, based his work on an ancient tale about a seventh century monk, Tripitaka, who traveled from China to India to learn about Buddhism. The mythical adventures of the Monkey King and his disciples are well known in China. Like the brothers Grimm tales in the West, the story of the Monkey King is a classic at home.

‘I grew up with it as a boy,’ says Mr. Xi. The quest of the young monk has been told on film in a popular 1960s cartoon produced by the Shanghai Film Studio. Mr. Xi is convinced the beloved Chinese tale, full of shape-changing creatures and fantastic tricks, will find an international audience.

When Weinberg visited the Beijing studio, the 52 half-hour episodes of Journey to the West were already assembled and presold to seven territories outside China, including Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Taiwan.

‘One of our fortes is international distribution and post-production,’ says Tierney, ‘and at the stage [CCTV was at in production], they were looking for post, sound, sound effects, final mix and international dubbing in French, English and Spanish.’

After working through the treaty, Cinar agreed to a final co-production share of 25% of the overall budget. With the exception of the presold territories, Cinar will retain international distribution rights in both the TV and home video markets.

Ancillary rights are not part of the current deal, and the two companies are still hammering out a separate contract for spin-offs. Despite the fact that China is the toy manufacturing capital of the world, Mr. Xi says his company ‘has learned a lot about the ancillary market from Cinar.’ Mr. Xi expects that Cinar will take a bigger share of the ancillary rights.

Journey to the West will debut on June 1 in China. The air date appropriately falls on Children’s Day, an officially recognized day in the People’s Republic of China. It will be released in the West later this year.

Rumble & Growl: Achieving

a high level of cooperation

On the same trip Weinberg met with CCTV, he also attended the Shanghai annual TV

festival, where he met Jin Guoping, VP in charge of Shanghai Animation Film Studio. The company had already produced 26 x 10-minute episodes of the animated series Rumble & Growl, which is based on a three-year-old Chinese comic book written by Wang Xiaoming.

‘At that time, we discussed the possibility of our cooperation with them, and both of us were satisfied with the encouraging achievements of the negotiations,’ says Mr. Jin. (In fact, the partnership was announced in late November.) ‘A month later, in December, we paid a visit back to Cinar and the final agreement for the cooperation was signed there.’

‘In recent years, we have had cooperation in a variety of forms with Germany, Australia, France and the U.S.,’ says Mr. Jin. The most successful projects are Ketchup! and The Toothbrush Family with Australia-based Southern Star.

Mr. Jin says his deal with Cinar is unique, and not just because it’s reportedly the first official Canada-China co-production for an animated series created in China. ‘The most distinctive characteristic [of this co-production] is that we are having a fair and equal cooperation in the aspects of investing, profit distribution, script and art creation.’

One month after the initial meeting in China, Cinar agreed to co-produce the next 52 x 10-minute episodes of Rumble & Growl on 50-50 equity/distribution terms. The budget for the second batch of shows is US$6.5 million. Unlike the CCTV partnership, Shanghai did not presell the series, and Cinar will retain all international rights, including Chinese-speaking territories, with the exception of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The series started airing its first 26 episodes on Shanghai Television, China’s second largest broadcasting company, last month. Pre-pro for the co-produced batch of 52 shows has just started, with the Chinese director and producer traveling to Montreal to do some prep work at Cinar. In this agreement, Cinar will work on pre-pro design, while Shanghai Animation Film Studio will focus on model design and backgrounds, as well as traditional cel animation. Cinar will handle most of the post, English version and international dubs.

Satisfying Chinese and

Canadian tastes

During the `80s, Chinese officials worried about ‘spiritual pollution’ from the West. Now, as cultural doors open, Chinese producers are faced with North American concerns of TV violence. This has been an issue for Journey to the West. Whereas Cinar says its target audience is kids ages six to nine, Mr. Xi says the Chinese version is aimed at the broadest spectrum possible. Adults watch animation in China, and the Monkey King will no doubt strike a nostalgic chord. Outside of Asia, scenes of the Monkey King engaged in gory battles with the devil will be cut for the international version, says Mr. Xi. The partners plan to present an English version of an episode at MIP-TV this month.

It’s too early to get a complete picture of the changes Cinar has asked to make on Rumble & Growl, but at press time, the partners were considering renaming the series and making other yet-to-be-determined revisions. Already Cinar’s Chinese partner has noticed a change in the shape of the noses and diet. What the characters eat in the Chinese version will not appear internationally. Music is another cultural barrier. Composition and songs for both series will change in versions intended for Western audiences.

Scouting other partnerships

After its two back-to-back announcements, Cinar plans to leverage more deals in China. Other companies are sure to watch these developments and perhaps follow suit.

‘More and more companies in the outside world are more interested in the Chinese market,’ says Mr. Xi. At NATPE in January, representatives from CCTV met with a number of foreign producers and distributors looking to co-produce. The floodgates have opened.

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