Director Tian Xiaopeng (standing) in his studio in Beijing (XINHUA)
Neither the director nor the producer of Monkey King: Hero Is Back ever imagined the homemade animated film would smash the box office takings in China of the universally acclaimed Kung Fu Panda 2. The American computer-animated action-comedy film recorded a box office income of 617 million yuan ($96.44 million) in 2011.
Since its release on July 10, the film had raked in 910 million yuan ($142 million) as of August 19, becoming the highest-grossing animated film in Chinese history. Previously, it was rare for Chinese animated films to register box office earnings of more than 100 million yuan ($15.63 million).
The film originates from Journey to the West, a classic Chinese fantasy novel dating back to the 17th century. At its beginning, the Monkey King, the main protagonist of the novel and the film, who loses his superpowers after angering the Gods, has been held captive under Wuxing Mountain for 500 years. When monsters attack a village close by, a young monk escapes to the mountain where he inadvertently frees the Monkey King from captivity and helps him overcome his immense feelings of loss. Finally, the Monkey King regains his powers and rescues the village from the clutches of monsters.
Unlike most China-produced animated films in the last few years, which took only a few months to make, this film cost director Tian Xiaopeng eight years to complete.
Tian's interest in animation goes back to his childhood, when he enjoyed watching animated TV series and subsequently learned to draw cartoons.
Although he majored in computer science at university, Tian's love for animation lingered and he finished several projects involving three-dimensional animated videos. After graduation, Tian decided to pursue his hobby further by entering a foreign company specializing in animation design in 1998. One year later, he founded his own company dedicated to animation development, with the ultimate goal being to produce animated full-length movies.
With that in mind, Tian made the decision in 2007 to create a film based on Journey to the West, a story familiar to Chinese audiences.
Despite the fact that the Chinese Government released a slew of incentive policies to support the development of the animation industry in 2004, Tian's company was too small to meet the conditions required. Since his company's shareholders' investment and his own savings still fell short of meeting what they would need, Tian had to borrow money from his family.
Tian embarked on his ambitious project in 2011. The going was tough and because of Tian's fastidious approach, many of the original employees left. "Among those who were recruited when the company was established, today only a handful remain," Tian said in a recent interview with the media.
There have been numerous adaptions of Journey to the West in the form of TV dramas, animated TV series and live-action films in China and abroad. However, compared with the previous depiction of the Monkey King as a handsome creature, Tian's production presents audiences with a long-faced, unattractive central character.
Tian said that in the original novel, the Monkey King is a scary monster. "I want to represent the image of the Monkey King in my mind's eye. I want to tell the audience that the Monkey King should be like this: He is not good looking, but he is a defiant and magnanimous hero," Tian told Cccnews.com.cn, a Chinese website providing information on the cartoon industry.
Many industry insiders have expressed appreciation for the image of the Monkey King in Tian's film.
"The Monkey King in this film is a bit like Hamlet. He constantly talks to himself and fights with his inner demons. He finally grows into a hero after going through much torment. Such a character will elicit the sympathy of the audience with ease," said Chen Xuguang, Director of the Institute of Film, Television and Theater of Peking University.
The titular protagonist of hit Chinese animation Monkey King: Hero Is Back (CFP)
Apart from the high quality, the film's production team's innovative fund-raising approach and promotional strategies have also contributed to the film's success.
The film used crowdfunding to get part of its investment, a strategy rarely used in film production. But, instead of special crowdfunding platforms, producer Lu Wei posted a message on social networking app WeChat in November 2014, asking his friends to raise money for the film's promotion and release. When asked what guarantees he could give for contributions, Lu agreed to compensate for any possible losses.
For Lu, the fashionable fund-raising method has not only collected money, but also turned the investors into endorsers of the film. These endorsers were able to recommend the film to their contacts online.
Lu said that because animated films have fewer selling points than other genres, crowdfunding helped focus the investors' attention on the product. "The investors have reposted almost every piece of promotional information for the film on their social networking accounts. Some of them even put the commercials for the film on outdoor advertising screens. A few people have also made block bookings, inviting their family and friends to see the film," he added.
As long as initiators have a basic sense of financial risk control and adopt sound risk prevention measures, crowdfunding will benefit the film industry, according to Lu.
The promotional strategies of the film focused on reviving moviegoers' enthusiasm for animated works.
Last June, a first music video for the film was uploaded to Bilibili.com, a leading Chinese cartoon video streaming site, and received 4 million hits within a short period of time. The video successfully captured the attention of the post-80s and post-90s generation, who have a strong affinity for homegrown animation. Such age groups later became the main force behind promoting the film on social networking media.
Meanwhile, film critics, business leaders and pop stars in 19 cities across China were invited to see the film for free before its release, resulting in effective word-of mouth exposure.
"The responses of the first batch of audiences were varied. Some said that the pictures were gorgeous, while others noted that the music had a nice feel. Such comments have piqued the interest of other moviegoers in seeing the film in person," said Yang Dan, Vice President of Beijing Weiying Technology Co. Ltd., one of the film's distributors.
A new era?
However, the film's success doesn't imply that the quality of Chinese animated films has improved in general.
None of the handful of films of the same genre that hit the screens this summer has been able to recapture the magic of Monkey King: Hero Is Back, among them the much anticipated Mr. Black: Green Star produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, the oldest and largest cartoon film producer in China. Most of these films have been criticized as being too naïve and childish for adult audiences.
At a seminar on the film in Beijing on August 4, participants agreed that animated works catering for people of all ages should be produced.
Additionally, experts believe that traditional Chinese culture and values should be further explored.
"What has made a comeback with the film is the Chinese style and traditional Chinese culture," noted Zhong Chengxiang, President of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles.
Tian said that he plans to shoot two sequels, with the first expected in two years.
They will focus on the Monkey King's adventures before and after embarking on a journey to the West to seek the teachings of the Buddha, he revealed.
Copyedited by Francisco Little
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