I was on the phone with a friend the other day and he half-jokingly referred to me as “a fellow prospector in China.” I felt flattered at the time, as I consider this guy something of a Yoda when it comes to China and the kids business in general. But as the week wore on, I found myself feeling uneasy with the phrase “prospector in China.” It was shoe that just didn’t quite fit what Sharon Thomas and I have been doing in China over the past few years. So, since I have 14 hours to kill on my flight to Shanghai today, I thought I’d try and figure out why “prospector” doesn’t feel right, and also try and come up with a better metaphor for our work here. In doing so, my hope is that I might shed some light on this complex market for those of you just beginning to think about China.
Let’s start with “prospector.” According to the old Westerns I’ve seen, prospectors are folks who leave the comfort of their indoor plumbing and head out into the desert and try to extract gold from them thar hills. Prospectors often bring along a donkey and some tools like picks, pans and sluice boxes and, if they are really ambitious, explosives to blast the gold out of the hills. Significantly, the prospector is mostly interested in removing the gold from the hills and is not at all concerned with giving anything back. In fact, most prospectors do a lot of damage to the hills from which they remove gold. This is considered a small price to pay for the nuggets they might carry home in their leather pouches.
Are there folks who come to China and, like prospectors, are mostly concerned with what they can take out this country? Certainly. In fact, most of the companies who contact us with questions about China all want to know the same three things: “How can I get my shows onto CCTV? How can I sell my toys in China? Are there ways around the notoriously strict SARFT regulations that determine what is Chinese content and what is international content?” In short, they see China as a big piggy bank that they hope to crack with their own content. This, I believe, is neither good business nor does it show much respect for China. One must never forget that the Chinese have a long history of dealing with outsiders who seek to extract value from their rich country, and the Chinese are also the world’s experts at preventing this from happening. After all, these are the people who built The Great Wall (and The Great Fire Wall) to protect themselves from foreigners who wanted access to Chinese territory, resources, and, yes, consumers.
But China does face some unique challenges when it comes to entertainment. Unlike, say, manufacturing, which involves following a blue print, making TV shows and films is a very nuanced process, particularly if one hopes to make content that’s good enough to sell internationally. When you produce 52 episodes of, say, an animated series, every episode must have a unique script, talented voice actors, great direction, etc. These are creative skills that, for a wide variety of historical reasons, are not as well developed in China as they are, say, in New York or L.A. The Chinese know this, and they also know that if they want to raise the standard of Chinese cultural exports like TV shows and films, they must partner with Western companies who can bring this sort of creative expertise. (This has been the driving force behind the co-production treaties that China has recently signed with a variety of nations.)
Unlike a prospector, Little Airplane wants to help the Chinese succeed in their creative goals. Towards this end, Sharon Thomas and I have given lectures and workshops across China for organizations ranging from The Ministry of Culture, to The China Academy of Art, to many of China’s larger entertainment companies. We have also been cooperating with several of our Chinese partners on the creation and production of new shows that originate in China. Unlike prospecting, these productions benefit Little Airplane as well as our Chinese partners (and China as a whole) and, we believe, lay the foundation for future projects that will showcase the best of both cultures.
So, rather than being “prospectors in China,” if I had to choose another job-related metaphor, I would say we are “co-pilots in China.” And we are assisting in the co-development and co-production of Chinese IP that will be good enough to fly to the top channels in China as well as the top channels around the world. Does this require frequent visits to China by myself and my team to build and maintain these relationships and ensure the quality of the work? Absolutely. But this is a small price to pay for the honor and privilege of making new content in China.