While international collaborations between animation companies is not new, more of these cross-global deals involving IP are being inked. Lion Forge recently teamed with China’s Starlight Entertainment to develop animated features and other content, while Saudi Arabia’s Manga is working closely with Japan’s animation giant Toei on projects.
Starlight Entertainment, headed by cinefile Peter Luo, invested in “Crazy Rich Asians” and has gone on to ink deals with an array of talent including Roland Emmerich, F. Gary Gray and Jon M Chu.
It sees an opportunity with animation, and Lion Forge is Black-owned with IP that celebrates diversity — and it won an Oscar for animated short “Hair Love,” directed and written by Matthew Cherry, earlier this year.
Lion Forge Animation is run by CEO David Steward II and president Carl Reed, who, through the Starlight deal, have access to the Chinese market. And Starlight has access to the world through Lion Forge. Both entities benefit from the cross-cultural connection.
One of the few Black-owned and run animation shingles around, St. Louis-based Lion Forge’s company goals were in sync with Luo and his team, says Steward.
“Animation is broader than a princess movie,” says Steward. Indeed, Lion Forge is open to stories not seen onscreen or in print a lot.
“We entered a market that didn’t have these voices,” Reed says. “We work with new voices and we’ll cultivate those voices. We feel the Matthew Cherrys need to have their voice be heard.”
Their first project is a retelling of the Chinese classic tale “Journey to the West.”
“The whole process is collaborative,” Steward says, noting that Starlight relates what the Chinese market is looking for but in the end, it all comes down to good storytelling.
“ ‘Journey to the West’ is the pivotal Chinese story,” says Reed. “What we really want to do is approach it to a completely different manner.
“We’re open to looking at doing new things. Part of it is because we’re in the Midwest. We’re not coming directly from the industry. We don’t care about artificial boundaries about content. … We’re not doing things that everyone else is doing.”
Steward says that one of the shingle’s biggest strengths is the chain of relationships they’ve been able to build. “These relationships span around the world, including India and [South] Korea.”
Lion Forge is developing several projects with a Korean animation studio from local IP.
“That’s where our editorial voice comes in, we’re able to take these gems and develop them for the international market,” says Steward. These studios are mainly used as animation service providers for overseas studios, but Lion Forge sees an opportunity for fresh content. It is also working with animation houses in India on developing original content and local stories.
In Saudi Arabia, Manga Animation Studio’s connection to Japan is much deeper than toons.
Manga CEO Buckhary Essam not only loves Japanese animation, but also speaks the language fluently, earned his post-graduate degrees in Japan and has worked as a cultural attache in the country for the Saudi government.
He says that Japanese animation has had a huge impact on Saudis of “his generation”: “We grew up watching Japanese animation” on television. In fact, he says it was animation that led him to study in Japan.
Manga is a subsidiary of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Misk Foundation, focusing on producing animation and developing video games with creative and positive content with a global-skewing point of view.
Essam’s enthusiasm for animation’s ability to bridge cultures is infectious. Last year at Cannes, Manga announced its deal with Japan’s Toei Animation on a $10 million to $15 million animated feature, “The Journey,” an epic based on Saudi folklore to be directed by Shizuno Kobun, whose credits include “Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle.”
Manga and Toei will collaborate on the pre-production and creation of story and the character design with Japanese and Saudi artists working together.
The co-production stems from a pact between the two companies made in November 2017, one month before Saudi Arabia lifted its 35-year ban on cinemas.
“‘The Journey’ is a milestone project for Manga,” said Essam at the time. “What we are doing here with ‘The Journey’ is representative of our larger role in creating an ecosystem throughout Saudi Arabia and the Arab world in which young talents are given opportunities and are supported, and high-quality work representing our culture is produced.
“We believe it’s our mission to support animation building in Saudi Arabia,” Essam says, noting that the company has helped develop video-game characters (one was a contest-winner, a 22-year-old Saudi woman) as well as content and games.
“The creative content industry is new to Saudi so we are building this from zero,” he says, adding that local universities, schools and ministries are all working to build the creative content industry in the county and support young talent.
As for Manga Studios’ goals, “I believe that Manga has the potential to be the regional leader and global pioneer [to export Saudi IP]. We have the capabilities to be the Disney of the Middle East. Hopefully you’ll see Manga World in the future,” he says enthusiastically.
“We are living in the 21st century . it’s a time of co-innovation and co-productions. … I believe in animation to inspire.”