Fortune Global Forum
Animating The Future: Made In China, For China, And Beyond
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Jeffrey Katzenberg, Chief Executive Officer, DreamWorks Animation SKG
Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Director, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Kung Fu Panda 3
June 7, 2013
MODERATOR: Okay. For our next event, here for a special spotlight presentation Animating the Future: Made in China for China and Beyond. Please welcome Jeffrey Katzenberg and Jennifer Yuh Nelson. (Applause.)
JEFFREY KATZENBERG: Timing, we all know the importance of this. In fact, when the timing is right, anything and everything is possible. Today in China the timing is right. We’ve arrived at a unique moment in this country, and you might say it’s actually been 5,000 years in the making. For ages, China has been known for its Great Wall. Now it might be better symbolized by a portal of opportunity that has begun to swing open.
But as with everything else here, this portal is distinctly Chinese in its appearance, its intricacy and its functionality. At DreamWorks animation, we are becoming something of a case study for how things and timing is so important when it comes to China. It all started a few years when two seemingly completely unrelated events were taking place at opposite ends of the planet.
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In Beijing, the country’s leadership was recognizing the importance of soft power. Meanwhile in Hollywood, DreamWorks was given the green light to a movie called Kung Fu Panda. I would love to tell you that we did this as part of a very shrewd strategy to gain entrée into China. It wasn’t. We just liked the idea of a film about a panda who wants to do kung fu.
Our filmmakers were intent on making this film as authentically Chinese as possible, and they really did their homework to be precisely accurate in every facet and detail of the story, the look, and the culture. After four years of production, Kung Fu Panda turned out to be more than we ever imagined or hoped for, and it truly was a love letter to China.
So we were beyond thrilled when the film became beloved by the Chinese people.
Then came Kung Fu Panda 2, which set an all-time record for any film, let alone an animated film, in this country. Beyond Kung Fu Panda movies, the phenomenal growth of China’s film market has been invaluable for the DreamWorks brand. Four of China’s top five animated films are from DreamWorks. And our most recent release, The Croods, is actually now their highest grossing original animated movie of all time.
It’s important to also note that in China of more than a dozen movies that we have brought here, been released here, we’ve actually never been asked to change a single frame of a single film. Clearly there is an underlying compatibility between the stories that we like to tell, the way in which we tell them, and the movie going audience here in China.
Given this success, we were ambitious to see if we could expand beyond producing in the U.S. a Chinese-themed film every three or four years that we could export, and instead become a China-based family brand that regularly created entertainment in China for China, and then for export to the rest of the world.
In order to implement this vision, we needed visionary partners. Fortunately, we found them in Li Ruigang of China Media Capital, and Jiang Mianheng of Shanghai Alliance. Li Ruigang is an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur. As Chairman of Shanghai Media Group, he created a movie enterprise that includes television stations, radios, newspaper, magazines, and an Internet venture. And Dr. Jiang has brought tremendous insight to this project based on his exceptional record of smart investments that have brought important new technologies and companies here to China.
We’re working together to build a company that takes full advantage of the combined strengths of China’s tremendous artistic and technological talent and our experience as storytellers in the film medium.
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Oriental DreamWorks is a true partnership in every sense of the word. But I continually remind myself that this is a Chinese company of which we are just one of the partners. And because it is a Chinese company, I’ve actually had to work very hard at modifying some of my American ways of doing business.
Back home, if we run into problems with rules, regulations, and traditions, we put our efforts into trying to change them. Not here. Back home the quickest way between two points is a straight line. Not here. Back home, impatience to get things done is considered a virtue. Not here.
In China, problematic rules are not here to be changed. They’re there to be worked around. In China, you always seem to get to your goal, but usually by not taking a straight or obvious route. In China, patience is not merely a virtue, it’s actually a requirement.
Over the years during all my trips here, there has not been one single day that has gone by without somebody telling me, Jeffrey, that’s not the China way. As you can imagine, at times it has been challenging to adapt my way of doing things. Fortunately along the way, I discovered really a totally unexpected resource that helped me to better understand the China way. Interestingly, it turned out to be a 624-page history book. I’m talking about On China by Henry Kissinger.
This is a book that finds insight in just about every aspect of China’s heritage and it’s culture. It has been surprisingly valuable and if you can I urge you to read it. But, as much as there are differences in the Chinese and Western ways of doing things, I’m constantly impressed with something that we very much share in common, and that is an entrepreneurial spirit. And today Chinese entrepreneurship is in hyper drive.
During the last 20 years so much has changed so fast that there is an entire generation that really believes anything is possible. This generation is going to maintain China as an incredible center of international commerce for many, many years to come. Let me share with you I think a pretty brilliant proverb that I just love and I think really beautifully summarizes the spirit of this nation. A person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the man doing it. I suspect that everyone in this room can subscribe to this piece of wisdom. There’s also a familiar Western saying that is very relevant to China today, it dates back to the ancient Greeks, timing is everything.
Our experience here in China I think is really bearing this one out. Ten years ago what we’re doing now would have been unthinkable. On the other hand, if we had chosen not to do business in China until 10 years from now, we would have found the Chinese portal to be wide open with many others, having already passed through before us.
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I have one more sage quote for you and this one actually comes from our own Kung Fu Panda. The wisest character in that film is a 500-year old turtle named Oogway. And this is what he has to say. Yesterday is history, tomorrow a mystery, today is a gift, and that is why it is called the present.
Today in China is indeed a gift of opportunity and to give you a bit more flavor as to how our company and its timing has worked out so well, I’d like to invite Jen Yuh Nelson up here to give you some more details of the past, present, and future saga of Po the Panda. Jen was a lead filmmaker on the first movie. She was the director of Kung Fu Panda 2. She is directing Kung Fu Panda 3 for us. Kung Fu Panda 2, because of its incredible success holds the ‑‑ gives Jen holding the distinction of having helmed the most successful film in history, any film that is, to be directed by a woman. Let me invite up Jen Yuh Nelson. (Applause.)
JENNIFER YUH NELSON: Thank you, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey spoke of Kung Fu Panda as a love letter to China, and that is absolutely true. When we were first creating the look of Kung Fu Panda we wanted to pay tribute to the beautiful tradition and culture of China. In the first film we set out to make an authentic world that used the lyrical beauty of Chinese brush paintings. We based all the animal fighting forms on the traditional techniques of kung fu. And sought to instill the characters of The Furious Five with nobility of true martial arts masters.
In Kung Fu Panda 2 we went even further. We sought ever-greater authenticity and detail and decided to study the river at its source. During production a group of artists from the movie went on an intense research trip, gathering over a terabyte of photos and video. We visited the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center to meet the pandas, as they would behave naturally, even getting to see the nursery where the preservation of this rare species was obviously going so well. It inspired us to create a baby Po, based on the awkward, but adorable babies we saw there, very cute.
One of the most important influences from our trip was our visit to Qing Cheng Mountain, the UNESCO World Heritage site and historical center for Taoism. We studied the unique traditional Sichuan architecture and atmosphere, the fine details of moss, carving of wood, and the play of light in the mist.
Qing Cheng Mountain was a direct influence on the mysterious final shot of Kung Fu Panda 2. In fact, the sharp-eyed viewer may find the rock in this image where we wrote the name of the mountain as a small tribute. It’s coming up. It’s right there. Every dish, every sign, every piece of fabric in Kung Fu Panda 2 was informed with details we found on this research trip. We wanted to make a film about China that the Chinese people would enjoy. And the film’s reception in China was the very best reward we could have ever asked for.
Now that we are embarking on Kung Fu Panda 3, we are striving even harder to achieve that authentic world. With the Chinese co-production, we hope to bring even more joy to the Chinese audiences as we step into the future of Kung Fu Panda. And now I leave you with a small peek into the future of Kung Fu Panda, some early development on a character. And I will leave her role as a mystery for you all to solve. (Applause.)
MODERATOR: Thank you. Thank you, Jennifer. Thank you, Jeffrey.