SHANGHAI -- China's animated film industry is on a roll, demonstrating its ability to produce record-shattering blockbusters as its works become more sophisticated and appealing to domestic consumers.
The biggest box-office hit in 2019 grossed more than three times the previous record while a growing number of original works are being released on online animation streaming sites, which are gaining popularity among fans.
The industry's brisk growth is being powered by a growing pool of talented animation artists and voice actors. Chinese animation production companies may soon upset the dominance of the domestic market by Walt Disney and Japanese studios.
The animated film "Ne Zha" enchanted Liu, a 34-year-old female corporate employee in Shanghai. "The animation is so beautiful that adults as well as children can enjoy it," she said.
The computer-animated feature, colored brightly and packed with action, set an eye-popping box-office record for an animated film in China. Its box-office sales topped 5 billion yuan ($717 million) at the end of December in a country where a movie making 3 billion yuan is considered a hit.
Disney's "Zootopia" set the previous box-office record for a contemporary animated movie screened in China -- some 1.5 billion yuan.
Two factors contributed to making "Ne Zha" such a phenomenal blockbuster.
One was the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party, which generated a wave of patriotism in 2019, pumping up sales of a wide range of Chinese products, from Huawei Technologies smartphones to cosmetics and clothes made in China. Chinese animated films were among the beneficiaries.
The other is Bilibili, a Chinese video sharing website that has been keen to buy the broadcasting rights for Japanese anime and invest in Japanese anime production projects. Through these investments, the company has been deeply involved in Japanese anime production processes, gaining opportunities to absorb anime production know-how and expertise.
The firm is capitalizing on the accumulated know-how and expertise to support Chinese students and trainees learning to acquire animation skills.
The company also supports such animators in the making by releasing their works on Bilibili and organizing competitions with prize money.
The efforts have paid off in the development of many skilled and talented people in the industry, which has acquired the ability to produce high-quality animation films.
Speaking at an anime event held in Shanghai in November, Bilibili Vice Chairman and Chief Operating Officer Ni Li declared that 2019 had shaped up as an "important year" for Chinese-made animation.
At the event, 40 new Chinese-made animated films were screened, most of which were financed or supported by Bilibili in some ways. The number of Bilibili users who watch animated films online grew to nearly 300 million in 2019 from 20 million in 2013, Li said.
The robust expansion of the Chinese anime market is inevitably piquing the interest of Japanese players.
The market surged to 171.2 billion yuan in 2018, up from 88.2 billion yuan in 2013, according to iResearch Consulting Group, a Chinese market research and consulting firm.
Bilibili is competing with a bunch of domestic rivals including Youku Tudou, a video-sharing subsidiary of e-commerce behemoth Alibaba Group, Tencent Video, a video streaming site operated by Internet conglomerate Tencent, and iQiyi, an online video platform owned by Baidu, the nation's largest internet search engine.
These businesses are snapping up the rights to distribute Japanese anime films, driving the explosive growth in the ranks of Chinese anime fans.
Japanese anime players are racing into the potentially lucrative market. Sony set up a local unit in Shanghai in the spring of 2019 for joint anime production with a Chinese partner. The Japanese electronics giant has already started selling anime character-themed products in the country.
Japanese broadcaster TV Tokyo Holdings announced in December that it will establish this month a new company in China for joint production of TV anime programs with local partners.
Japanese anime companies will face stiff competition from Chinese rivals in the rapidly growing market.