“Um, see me after this talk, I’ll give you my business card.” The Getting Started in Hollywood Q&A didn’t seem to be going as planned. Presenter Kevin McKeever, who is remaking 1980’s cartoon Robotech into a feature film produced by Sony, just finished his Powerpoint full of tips for seeking out internships and getting a foot in the studio door. The questioner, however, wanted to know when she could have a meeting about licensing out Robotech characters to her T-shirt company for mass production. Two other questioners asked if McKeever would consider moving all of Robotech’s animation production to their studios based in Shanghai.
This past weekend saw Shanghai’s first Comic Con, and the city is still figuring out what to do with it. The audience is loosely divided into two groups: fans, who came for a chance to be a part of the Comic Con community, and business people, who think they smell a potential to make some money off this. The two types awkwardly mingle in the expo space — one in meticulously primped cosplay outfits, the other in business casual. The walls of Shanghai Comic Con are draped with warning signs: half telling fans to keep their hands to themselves, that "Cosplay Is Not Consent," the other half telling the business types who to call if they spot any intellectual property rights violations.
For those involved in bringing American pop culture to China, business is booming. On the showroom floor, American heroes are out en masse: Batman, Spiderman, and even Captain America himself appear on posters or as the costumes of many Comic Con goers. Thanks to some big-budget Chinese co-production deals — Transformers 4 and Ironman 3, most notably — a number of American blockbusters have had massive success in mainland China. With Ironman 3, not only did the film avoid government censorship, it actually had several minutes added to its mainland China release where some Chinese film stars made an appearance in a bid to boost domestic ticket sales — and it worked.
Japanese pop culture hasn’t been as lucky. Anime and manga, the lifeblood of much of Asia’s comic book culture, don’t mesh well with China’s strict media laws, which favor safe, non-provocative content. Just last month, a government document circulated online listing 62 popular manga and anime titles, including the extremely popular Sailor Moon, Naruto, and One Piece, identifying the works as "violent" or "vulgar" and recommending their censorship. Last fall, some state papers decried a Japanese "cultural invasion" of China via anime cartoons, and recommended that they be banned from the already heavily censored Chinese internet.
Censorship and co-productions make for an awkward showing at Comic Con — leaving Chinese animators and filmmakers to pick up the slack. A few Chinese companies — video hosting site Tudou and electronics company LeTV — hosted booths on the main exhibition floor, but nobody showed up to Comic Con dressed as a TV or a buffering video. The only Chinese character on exhibition was Tuzki, the emoji rabbit. Tuzki had its own stall, bedecked with signs exclaiming "Tuzki: Icon of the internet generation, star of emoticons."
Try as Tuzki might, Shanghai Comic Con was a thoroughly American pop culture affair. When it came time for the cosplay competition (the grand finale event on the second, and last, day of the convention), Marvel and DC characters hit the stage in force, as did some wildcards — Princess Amidala from Star Wars Episode I and one of the non-Robocop robots from Robocop. But just a couple of Japanese characters made an appearance, and Chinese characters barely showed at all.
Looking toward next year’s Comic Con, it seems a stretch to think much will change. Chinese companies have grown comfortable with co-financing deals on international blockbusters, and there is too much money to be made to risk shaking things up. And since President Xi Jinping came into office in 2012, China’s media environment has moved in one direction: toward greater censorship, especially of foreign media.
It might not be good news for China’s comic book fans or the domestic animation industry, both of which are increasingly cut off from a potential goldmine of talent and inspiration across the Sea of Japan. The two men who asked Kevin McKeever about relocating Robotech’s animation production to Shanghai were disappointed by his response — a previous Robotech film, released in 2013, was outsourced to an animation production company in Ecuador, which meant dealing with fewer (or at least different) production hurdles. But not all hope is lost — Chinese companies may not get to help produce the movie, and Chinese cinema goers may not get to see it, but there’s a pretty good chance they’ll get some T-shirts out of it. So perhaps Shanghai Comic Con served its purpose after all.
Correction: Final paragraph updated with correct version of Robotech that was outsourced.