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Realities and Key Considerations When Working in China

For veteran animation producer Leanne Passafonti, finding success in the Middle Kingdom is all about preparation, partnering and managing expectations.   

Veteran producer Leanne Passafonti is a top British development and production professional with over 11 years experience creating and producing original content for the children’s media space. She’s worked with and for some of the industry’s biggest players (Nickelodeon, DreamWorks Classics, Red Kite Animation and more), on acclaimed shows such as the Asian Television Award winning George of the Jungle, Emmy & GooRoo, Ella Bella Bingo, BAFTA nominated House of Anubis and Filminute Award winning and BAFTA nominated Stitch Up Showdown.

She has significant experience in the Chinese market, having worked with major broadcasters CCTV and Toonmax Media and several Chinese producers. Most recently, she led the development and was story editor for the 52 x 11, preschool show Emmy & GooRoo, as well as writing episodes and the theme tune lyrics for the new Youku series. Passafonti talks us through what to expect when working in China and the key things to consider when venturing out of the wild West and into the emerging East.

AWN: How does the Chinese media landscape look compared to the West?

Leanne Passafonti: In China, there are large national broadcasters like CCTV and SMG, as well as many regional Chinese broadcasters who operate only in specific parts of China. While YouTube is not accessible in China without use of a VPN, Youku and other online platforms like Tencent and iQiyi offer a similar experience, though are predominantly populated with professionally produced original content, unlike YouTube. Youku has more than 500 million monthly active users, with 800 million daily video views, second only to iQiyi. There are strict regulations surrounding content in China but currently, the regulations are looser for the online platforms. Any content airing on TV can air online but not vice versa. Since online platforms are an on-demand service, international content, which traditionally is reduced to non-prime time slots on regular TV, has been finding its way into the Chinese market via the VOD giants. However, there is discussion of this potentially changing in early 2018.

AWN: How did you first get involved in the Chinese TV animation market?

LP: I had just set up my company, Bright Box Creative, when ex-Nickelodeon colleague and former GM MTV and Nickelodeon China, Alex Chien, mentioned that she was working with major broadcaster Toonmax Media of the Shanghai Media Group (SMG). Alex was looking to run a series of workshops for the network around development to help reinvent the existing creative process and give the shows in development potential to travel internationally. Alex brought me over to Shanghai to present to the creative and executive team. During this trip, I also assessed Toonmax’s current projects in development, offering advice and feedback on the creative materials.

This opportunity to get face to face with a major Chinese broadcaster in Toonmax Media was invaluable. This really opened the door to further collaboration and a longstanding relationship with Alex and Toonmax.

AWN: If you’ve never worked in China, where should you start?

LP: If you don’t have any existing contacts in China, I would suggest going there and timing a trip with a key event like Kidscreen East or the Shanghai TV Festival as well as meeting Chinese producer delegates at markets such as MIPCOM and Kidscreen. Whether you are a creative keen to work on Chinese shows or a producer aiming to break your content into the Chinese market, meeting with the producers developing content in the market and forging relationships in person would be the first and best step. In my experience, Chinese companies like to build relationships and keep working with the same people.

Additionally, in order to navigate the cultural differences and business nuances, it would be invaluable to have a key contact on the ground who speaks the language and can help to get you in front of the right people and to execute contracts. Without Alex’s expertise and professional backing, I wouldn’t have been able to make that first step.

AWN: For anyone looking to produce content in China, how should they focus their efforts?

LP: In China, the animation business isn’t driven by the broadcasters and online platforms in the same way that it is in the West. This is largely due to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People's Republic of China (SAPPRFT) regulations, government support in the form of animation incubators across the country and incentives with additional funds given to content which airs on CCTV or nationally. Chinese animation is afforded 70% of the slots on linear TV and is often financed through private investment. More recently, VOD platforms such as Youku, when coming on board as a partner, have provided significant investment – however, linear channels taking up Chinese content may only pay around 1% of its value to air the series. Chinese broadcasters need lots of Chinese content but often pay little for it. Successful shows often air on multiple platforms and channels in China.

The best way to launch content in China is to collaborate with a Chinese producer from the early stages. This way, the content will have the best chance of meeting the needs of the Chinese market and the global market. SAPPRFT places tight regulations around any content that is not originated in China, so it is difficult to find distribution for fully produced international content. Additionally, license fees are also very low. The prime time, after-school slot (5-9pm) is reserved exclusively for domestic content. It’s therefore difficult to get traction for international shows airing late in the evening when kids are already in bed and makes for an uphill battle in launching a successful licensing campaign in the region. Online VOD platforms like Youku currently have less stringent regulations, though these are also rumoured to be changing early next year.

In order to make your content Chinese, you should look for a Chinese production partner and to create and produce the series together, or work on an original Chinese concept together, so it can air on any platform, pending SAPPRFT approval. All Chinese approved content must be 100% Chinese owned and Chinese financed. It is not unusual for Chinese companies to buy overseas companies so the content becomes Chinese. It’s therefore not an official co-production because the show is financed and owned in China. Currently, it is more of a collaboration. Overseas producers are also unlikely to receive a credit in China since the show has to be seen to be fully Chinese. If you do receive a credit, it will be in Chinese characters and only with the approval of SAPPRFT. This is the case for any and all overseas talent on a Chinese show.

While there isn’t a points system for collaborating with China like there is in France, and work can be divided up more flexibly, aside from the content being fully Chinese owned and financed, SAPPRFT will need to approve the concept you decide to develop and produce for it to qualify as Chinese content. Additionally, before the show can air, (either on TV or online) SAPPRFT will also need to approve all episodes to ensure the content meets their cultural and regulatory requirements. This creates an extra step in the process which needs to be considered from the outset before a show can launch.

Creatively, there are also considerations. For example, villains can’t have star badges, logos or emblems because stars feature in the Chinese flag so villains wearing a star is a negative association. This issue has resulted in shows requiring whole characters to be changed before being approved for air, which could prove costly and result in missing important delivery deadlines. Therefore, it is not only a requirement for international producers to co-produce or collaborate with Chinese producers to have their content approved as Chinese by SAPPRFT, but it would be a near impossible task to know and understand all the necessary requirements to make sure the content would be approved without a Chinese producer’s insight.

In terms of deal-making, the need for the Chinese company to own the content and SAPPRFT to approve all deliverables is likely to impact on your deal process. SAPPRFT is also likely to get tougher on online content, given the rise of international shows starting to populate that space. Each Chinese producer is likely to have different creative views about which parts of the production they want to see completed in China, but there is flexibility there. When navigating this process, it could be a good idea to hire a Chinese attorney or on the ground advisor to help you understand the requirements and agree on the right deal.

Additionally, there are regulations which stipulate thresholds for the movement of cash out of China. There are tax implications and approvals required to move large sums of money, which is something to be aware of, before the start of a production. Having an on the ground expert and clearly defined processes will save much time and money in the long run.

AWN: What type of content works well in China?

LP: Shows that work well in China often tap into Chinese traditions, themes, culture and tales. They don’t need to be a love letter to China, but should provide inspiration and relevance. Qualities related to aspects of the country’s culture in the characters, stories or concepts certainly help. Think Kung Fu Panda.

Japanese anime is also hugely popular in China. After filling Chinese screens in the 90s, Japanese anime has suffered under the regulations afforded by SAPPRFT, which have prevented many popular shows from being aired in the after-school prime time slots. Kids wanting to watch these Japanese shows have to stay up late to see them.

In terms of international content, Spongebob Squarepants has had success but ultra-quirky and surreal shows tend not to penetrate the Chinese market. Adventure Time probably wouldn’t work there. Shows like Tom and Jerry have and continue to remain household staples in China.

Being Chinese content, however, makes all the difference to an evergreen success. The Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf is a huge Chinese originated comedy brand. The show centers on a group of goats living on the Green Pasture, Qing Qing Grasslands and the story revolves around a clumsy wolf who is constantly trying to eat the goats and failing miserably. This show launched in 2005 and now has over 1500 episodes to its name along with several movies. It has aired on over 75 channels in mainland China.

The classic Tales from Journey to the West is another example of Chinese originated content that has timeless appeal. Of course, The Monkey King movies and other incarnations of the stories such as Monkey have travelled internationally. I was fortunate enough to lead the development of English scripts of the first ever preschool version of The Tales from Journey to the West, which is now distributed worldwide by Bejuba! The stories are hugely significant in China and the characters and underlying themes resonate well with audiences internationally too.

For CCTV, China’s largest public service broadcaster, it is often important for the concepts to be more overtly Chinese. I co-created a concept with UK writer Sam Morrison based on a short brief for CCTV, which loosely translates to ‘Dreams of Stars.’ The stories were based on real Chinese heroes from past and present to inspire a new generation of heroes. Together with artist and director Garry Marshall, we travelled to Beijing to work with Alex Chien and the CCTV team on the concept and a related animation/live-action project featuring Chinese school kids, which launched online on iQiyi, an online video platform based in Beijing and the largest online video site in China.

AWN: What are the biggest challenges working in the Chinese TV animation market?

LP: The greatest challenge is getting your foot in the door and forging helpful relationships. Once you have several key contacts, suddenly the path to success is at least visible.

Processes are often very different in China. In the earliest stages, there is often a more experimental approach to development where a rough pilot will be made to see how a few characters or a world will look and feel. This can be really interesting from a visual point of view, of course, but also very challenging when it comes to pitching the show internationally, because there may be a very limited amount written around the characters, world and stories at that point. The concept may need a lot of time and thought before it can continue to the visual stage of development and the pilot or trailer may well need changing once the concept has been devised in detail.   

Practically speaking, you also need to be creative and prepared for the best ways to share deliverables, content, contracts and any other documentation with your Chinese collaborators. Since Google isn’t accessible in China, Google Drive and Google docs are out of the question. Finding a reliable and compatible cloud sharing system early on is important. In terms of communication, Skype is available but doesn’t always work that well. Using Zoom, a Chinese version of Skype and getting WeChat (a Chinese messaging service similar to WhatsApp), are essential to working and communicating with China.

Production schedules tend to be much shorter than what we’re used to in the West. In China, content is made quickly. This is partly due to budget constraints, but also has a lot to do with the timing of delivery. Many platforms, such as Youku, will only launch new content in summer or winter. So, once a show is greenlit for production, the production schedule is heavily dictated by the platform’s needs.

Of course, it’s important to have excellent communication on all sides throughout the process. One of the trickiest parts is often the pre-production phase. Getting an excellent and industry savvy translator for the scripts is invaluable, otherwise there are likely to be a number of jokes and character idiosyncrasies lost in translation.  On a tight production schedule, allowing enough time for back and forth translations, throughout scripting is key. But, it’s also important to watch for potential issues heading into storyboarding to avoid any misinterpretation.

Production budgets in China are also very different. It would be wrong to think of China as a money pot. Although there has been a huge amount of growth and investment in the industry, budgets are small by western standards, so being resourceful is of utmost importance. To start meaningful professional relationships with Chinese producers and broadcasters, it’s important to work with their budgets and timeframes as much as possible.

Cultural differences are another key challenge. This doesn’t just affect the way you do business, conduct meetings and forge partnerships, but also how you tackle the creative. For example, on Emmy & GooRoo, a Chinese-Spanish production I worked on, in the scripts coming from Spain, the main characters, Emmy and GooRoo, would often hug. In China, hugging is not something kids would do like in other parts of the world. So, we had to tone this down to ensure that it would feel realistic and relatable to Chinese kids – we only had them hugging when something very good or bad happened.

AWN: What are Chinese production companies looking for from their Western collaborators?

LP: In the same way that overseas producers want to crack the Chinese market, Chinese producers want to break into the West. Since the 2000s, government initiatives and regulations on international series have boosted the animation industry and levelled the playing field domestically for Chinese productions. But, but few Chinese shows have travelled internationally. Many companies in China have a great deal of work for hire experience but less experience managing whole productions. They are therefore keen to learn, build on quality, are optimistic and want to achieve international success with overseas producer input. A big issue remains that Chinese producers need to better understand the type of content Western broadcasters are looking. Newer producers also need to learn the right people to meet with. Collaborations provide the necessary insight and ensure the content has the right balance to meet Chinese audience tastes and regulatory requirements while providing the greatest potential for international appeal and success.

AWN: Why are the Chinese producing mostly preschool shows for potential international distribution?

LP: Due to cultural differences and regulations, 6-11 animated comedies seem to have great difficulty breaking into the Chinese market. As mentioned earlier, Tom and Jerry is still incredibly popular and well-watched in China, but animated comedy hasn’t evolved to the point in China where wacky, surreal, quirky, mixed-media and fast-paced comedy is ‘normal.’ So, much of the newer 6-11 comedy series would jar against other Chinese originated content. Creating something in this space from scratch right now would potentially be a hard sell to Chinese investors.

The rise of preschool collaborations may also be due, in part, to the loosening of China’s one child policy in recent years. With a larger preschool audience, there’s a greater need for original programming for that age bracket.

There is a huge licensing market in China, which may also be another factor in the production of more preschool content. In China, the licensing process moves extremely fast, with licensing rolling out often at the same time or right after episodes in a first season launch. The licensing rollout plan happens during the development and production process.

AWN: Any key take-aways?

LP: Do travel there. Meeting in person is vitally important to relationship building. Skype or FaceTime won’t garner the same results.

Do your research and meet Chinese delegates at key industry events. Start by looking for Chinese producers who are developing original content and looking to collaborate with the West. Forging these relationships will open doors to meeting with the Chinese broadcasters and platforms and afford you the necessary knowledge and understanding required to meet their and SAPPRFT’s needs. Having a contact on the ground who speaks the language and understands the industry well to help you navigate business deals.

Don’t generalize. China is a huge country with an array of talent, studios and content. Finding the right partners and the right projects to work on together takes time and there may be some bumps in the road along the way. But, once you’ve found good co-producers and contacts, those relationships will likely be long lasting.

Be patient. Deals may take time and relationships won’t come easy. It takes time to break down the wall. You’ll need to persevere and start small. You’ll also need to be patient throughout the production process and listen to your Chinese partner’s needs and concerns to address cultural differences and meet SAPPRFT regulations.

Be respectful and understanding of cultural differences and processes while keeping the global landscape in mind. This will allow you to build trust and find mutually beneficial ways of becoming a go-to person for creating, developing and producing kids animation in China.

Lastly, collaborate from the earliest stages to ensure your content is approved as Chinese.