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Lucasfilm, on the other hand, believes that its team in Singapore will be an integral part of every film or video game it produces for every market--not just in Asia. "We've always concentrated on making sure our characters have global appeal," says Christian Kubsch, managing director of the Singapore studio. In fact, the company has made Singapore a key part of its strategy. Company execs see it as a launching point for building the brand in neighboring countries like China and India, two of its fastest-growing marketplaces. The Singapore studio will also spearhead Lucasfilm's first animated feature film this year, and its employees will soon make up at least one-third of Lucasfilm's staff.
Asia's fast-growing economies welcome the investment and are putting their resources into nurturing the digital-animation industry. Singapore hopes that by 2018, digital media will generate $10 billion a year, or about 5% of last year's GDP. India's animation sector has grown 50% over the past two years and is expected to attract $950 million in outsourcing contracts with Hollywood studios by next year. The number of animation departments in Chinese universities has quadrupled, to more than 400, over the past five years, and animation supports a nearly $2 billion industry. Thailand has sold popular television cartoon series to China and South Korea and hopes to export more than $2 billion worth of products by next year. Working with local universities to incorporate animation into curriculums, the Animation Council of the Philippines plans to have more than 25,000 digital artists by 2010.
Another, smaller player is the rogue communist state of North Korea. Under the patronage of leader Kim Jong Il, a movie buff, animation is one of the rare sectors in which North Korea is following the global trend. Animation houses from North America, Europe and Asia have all subcontracted work there. The state-owned SEK Studio last year paired up with South Korean animators to produce Empress Chung, a $6.5 million animated feature film based on a Korean Cinderella story.
The bane of any creative industry in Asia--intellectual property protection-- remains the most pressing concern for animation. Chu, who has worked in animation in Hong Kong for more than 20 years, has given up. "There's really nothing that can be done," he says. "The only hope is that someday our product is cheap enough that it's not affordable to counterfeit." Lucasfilm, on the other hand, chose to operate in Singapore because of the country's strict copyright laws and advanced legal system. "We feel comfortable that the infrastructure is in place to protect individual IP," says Kubsch.
For now, Lucasfilm's biggest challenge is snatching up the best talent within Singapore's burgeoning digital-arts community before rivals move in. In November, the studio launched the Jedi Masters Program, a two-year paid apprenticeship designed to attract Singaporean students like Travis Ho. Lucasfilm better move fast. Ho, who won't graduate for another two years, has already co-founded a small video-game development firm that has gotten government and foreign contracts. "It's a small operation," Ho says. "But we're doing pretty innovative stuff for beginners." It's no match for Lucasfilm yet, but who knows? The next George Lucas may be working for him in Singapore.