As so-called "IP fever" in China's film industry sputters to a halt, producers are hoping animation will help boost a faltering business model.
Originating from China's online culture, "intellectual property" (IP) can refer to online novels, games, or streamed entertainment that are considered marketable as mainstream media. Ahead of this year's international Licensing Expo, held in Shanghai from July 18 to 20, organizers are encouraging local animation studios to focus on developing "derivative" products, and increase their IP's value with quality production and storytelling.
Online, commenters often exclaim, "I really like that IP!" as if discussing a genre, rather than a legal term. According to Gao Xiang, a professor of literature at Nankai University, this concept of IP dates back to 2013, and has since become a "goldmine" for the entire entertainment industry, which suffers from both a lack of experienced screenwriters or original screenplays. Successful examples include The Legend of Sword and Fairy, a popular online fantasy RPG adapted for TV, and online romance novel My Boss and I.
But IP's heyday may already be behind it, thanks to a slew of disappointing adaptations that critics blame on studios' dependence on sales and marketing teams over creative direction. There was a dearth of "big IPs" at the official selection of the 20th Shanghai International Film Festival in June, as such adaptations garner poor reviews, and have minimal appeal outside their original fan base.
By contrast, animation IPs have greater licensing opportunities, with more potential for profit. In a Beijing mall in May, a weeklong exposition on "My Emperor" (吾皇), a feline character from a 2015 web-comic by illustrator Baicha (白茶), reportedly drew 13 percent more visitors to the mall than usual according to The Paper, which also cited lack of animation IPs as a shortcoming of China's homegrown Wanda Theme Parks.
WeChat emojis have become another source of animation IPs in recent years. In 2014, around 65 percent of revenue from the Ali the Fox IP, a character with more than 200 million downloads from the WeChat sticker store, came from spin-off merchandising such as Ali-themed toys, linens, and stationery, as well as licensed operations like Ali's Café.
With contributions from David Dawson