China’s slowing economy may have softened demand for many American imports, but at least one product category is booming this year: Hollywood’s talking animal movies.
In just the first 3 months of 2016, two Hollywood animated movies featuring talking animals—Zootopia and Kung Fu Panda 3—will by themselves combine to break 2014’s record of $286 million in box office grosses for American animated features in China.
That 2014 record was compiled by such Hollywood hits as Dreamworks Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon 2 ($65 million in Chinese theatrical revenue), Universal/Illumination’s Despicable Me 2 ($53 million), Disney’s Frozen ($48 million) and Dreamworks/20th Century Fox ’s Penguins of Madagascar ($40 million), among others.
Image credit: Dreamworks Animation
Animation has carried the weight for Hollywood while its live action movies have stagnated in China in recent months. The last real breakout live action Hollywood hit was Jurassic World, which earned $227 million last summer (this January’s Star Wars 7 was only a middling success at $127 million). Meanwhile, talking animal toons have boomed like never before at mainland multiplexes.
With Zootopia and Kung Fu Panda 3 projected to earn a combined $350+ million in China this year, and with half a dozen more high profile talking animal pics waiting to unleash, it won’t be a surprise if Hollywood grosses over $500 million from such films this year.
The growing success of American animated films in China can be attributed to several factors, ranging from China-tailored production and marketing strategies, to shifting audience tastes.
Kung Fu Panda 3 was designed from the ground up to appeal to Chinese audiences. A co-production that was partly animated at the Oriental Dreamworks facilities in Shanghai, the movie featured lip movements synched to the Chinese dialogue and a big-budget marketing campaign that saturated local media. The film set a new box office record of$151 million for animated features in China, though a poor choice of release date curtailed what should have been a much bigger run.
National tastes have also shifted as China has aggressively expanded construction of its multiplexes in the hinterlands, where audiences have shown themselves to be especially receptive to family and animated fare. These audiences apparently favor anthropomorphic animals over animated humans, as this year’s releases have demonstrated. The biggest animated hits of 2015 were the local Monkey King: Hero is Back ($148 million) and Japan’s Stand By Me Doraemon (starring an animated robot cat, it grossed $87 million). Hollywood’s non-animal toons like Hotel Transylvania 2 ($18 million) and Inside Out ($15 million) fared poorly in comparison.
Since they have a virtual menagerie of talking animal toons slated to release later this year, Hollywood’s studios can expect the 2016 bounty to continue. Coming up are Universal/Illumination’s Secret Life of Pets, Disney/Pixar’s Finding Dory, Warner Bros Storks, Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, Sony /Columbia’s Angry Birds, and 20th Century Fox’s Ice Age: Collision Course. At least four of these films should secure China distribution slots, and if they average at least $50 million each, Hollywood’s export revenue from animated films will more than double its 2014 record.