In dozens of darkened rooms in cities across Asia, you will find next year's box office hits taking shape. Animation studios throughout the region house hundreds of works in progress on behalf of the biggest names in entertainment, from Disney to DreamWorks and Warner Bros. Market research firm Digital Vector estimates that last year Western studios commissioned $2 billion in animation contracts from studios predominantly in China, India, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.
But for all that Asian input, animated films inevitably "feel" Western. That's because the Western studios dominate the creative process, typically providing the story concept, script, character design and voice tracks, while the labor-intensive postproduction work is farmed out to Asia. Now, serial entrepreneur Richard Branson and a team of fellow pioneers say they're determined to "reverse the funnel" and produce world-beating Indian comic heroes for the digital age via the newly established Virgin Comics and Virgin Animation. "We will be tapping into the great mythic storytelling in India to create a whole new library in character entertainment," Branson told Time. "It is Bollywood meets Marvel meets manga." In July, Virgin Comics plans to unveil four graphic novels based on Hindu legends to the U.S., Indian and British markets. As Sharad Devarajan ceo of the U.S.-based Gotham Entertainment Group, the largest publisher of comics in South Asia and a collaborator with Branson puts it, the goal is to create "the next wave of global mythology."
The new business is testament to the global boom in the $50 billion-a-year animation industry. Hayao Miyazaki is living proof that indigenous storytelling has international appeal. Three of the top five grossing films in Japanese history were produced by Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli. Of those, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle were honored by the Oscar committee. No longer ghettoized in Saturday-morning cartoons or serial blockbusters like Ice Age and Shrek, animation now encompasses the content for mighty subindustries, including games, cartoons for television and cable, live-action special-effects films, commercials and the latest frontier mobile phones.
Asian countries have distinct advantages in the business, in addition to relatively cheap labor. Many governments offer special tax provisions and investment incentives to attract Western studios. In South Korea, animation studios have enjoyed low-interest loans, tax breaks and infrastructure support since 1994, when the government changed animation's status from a service industry to a manufacturing one. Indian studios specializing in outsourced digital content are treated to the same tax benefits as the IT industry: if a digital animation studio can prove its finished product has been sent out of India, it is exempt from income tax.
Branson and his partners who include including best-selling author Deepak Chopra and award-winning Indian director Shekhar Kapur are betting that Indians will respond to homegrown animated tales. India's growing middle class is tempting the world. And while India hasn't shown much of an appetite for homegrown animation to date, veteran Indian animator Ram Mohan points to the success of Hanuman, one of the first ever locally produced animated feature films; it's taken more than $3 million at the box office since its release in November. Anindya Roychowdhury, an analyst at KPMG India, told Time that the moment Indian Star TV and Disney changed their programming from dubbed Western cartoons to original, local content, their popularity shot up. The Virgin team believes that Indian myths and folklore have legs outside the country. This summer, Kapur will unveil a comic book called Snake Woman that takes place in Alphabet City in Manhattan. "Most people will never realize that they are reading a story that has its origins in a 10,000-year-old Indian myth," he says.
Cross-border animation can have tricky moments. Sander Schwartz, president of Warner Bros. animation division part of the Time Warner corporation that owns Time tells of a U.S. director who called two retakes on a scene in which a character was to be shown "talking to himself". Instead of a voiceover, his South Korean animators drew him with his lips moving. The next showed him talking to a mirror. Schwartz says studios now use videoconferencing and dedicated websites to troubleshoot such miscommunications.
A bigger challenge may be finding experienced illustrators. Says Mohan: "We have no problem understanding the script. But what we don't have is enough trained people." India's National Association of Software and Service Companies predicted that as many as 30,000 new animators will be needed by 2009. Still, if demand for animation takes off in India, the industry will find a way to attract talent. Says Kapur: "The appetite for Eastern mythology Chinese, Indian, Japanese is clear in the rest of the world if you look at the success of Kill Bill or the mysticism of Harry Potter or Japanese anime. I mean, $14 billion in cultural exports from Japan can't all be sushi."