Cooperation between the Russian Animation Industry and Asian Partners


One of the main trends in the development of the Russian animation industry is the intensification of international cooperation and promotion on international media markets. Russian animators are developing different forms of international cooperation and co-production in the context of the economic crisis, financing problems, lack of second-tier personnel and production capacities, as well as national distribution problems. In the situation of a weakening relationship with European partners, there is an increase in cooperation with Asian companies.

The leading role is given to cooperation with China, due to the policies pursued by the two countries and close cultural interaction supported at the intergovernmental level. Russian companies are moving from outsourcing in film production to other forms of interaction, such as co-financing of projects and co-production. The essay analyzes the co-production experience of such leaders of the Russian animation industry as Riki, KinoAtis and Wizart Animation.

Co-production with foreign companies involves a number of problems caused by cultural, mental, legal and organizational differences. Still, it combines financial efforts and consolidates technical capabilities, raising the quality of films to the world level. Co-production also stimulates international distribution and reduces financial risks, opens up opportunities to conquer new markets and overcome the systems of quotes that exist in some countries. In the Russian animation industry, the number of co-produced films demonstrates a tendency to increase. The development of various forms of interaction between the Russian animation business and foreign partners and the presentation of coproduced films on international media markets contributes to the formation of Russia’s positive image and promotes its national interests, lifestyle and culture, affirming animation’s long-standing status of a soft power asset.

Full Text

One of the important aspects for the development of the Russian animation industry at the modern stage is the activation of international cooperation with the aim to increase volumes of joint production and strategic interaction in the spheres of culture and the entertainment industry. The Russian market is rapidly developing in the animation segment, but studios that show their films only on national screens are unable to return the means invested in the production to gain profits. In general, since new perspectives open and financial risks lessen, joint productions are advantageous for the development of the animation industry. Nevertheless, coproduction projects allow enterprises to cross the borders of the national, traditional market, becoming springboards for developing new territories with either competition on the side from other companies or quota for showing foreign films, which is an obligatory condition. Co-produced films are not subject to the quota rule; they also obtain the status of national films, though studios of different countries take part in their production. This status not only gives them the right to tax benefits for production, they also get priority rights and support in film distribution. As a result, coproduction expands the distribution markets by opening new ones and favoring selling rights to other territories.

In the conditions of economic crisis, problems of financing, shortage of second-level personnel, and technical capacities, representatives of the developing Russian animation industry have joined in search of potential partners abroad. Unlike for feature films, Russian animators, experiencing problems with national distribution, look for new platforms for distribution both in theaters and on TV; furthermore, they need investors for realizing new projects and issuing franchises. Even if theater audience and the number of screens grow, it is becoming increasingly difficult to repay Russian animation only by means of national distribution. As P. Shvedov puts it, “possibilities to develop in the current economic reality are mostly exhausted, and additional stimuli for growth are needed” for Russian animation 1. Its further development is connected with not only building a new economic strategy and stimulating measures by the state, but also actions on the international field: on the one hand, with the active expansion of international media markets and the increase of the share in distribution abroad; on the other hand, with the introduction of various forms of joint production.

When the Cinema Fund (hereafter CF) presented its means, it favored the development of the Russian animation industry. Companies, however, still suffer painful shortages of such means, increasingly striving to participate in various pitches and grant programs, including international markets, to provoke the interest of potential partners in the joint realization of projects.

Promotion of Russian animation abroad

The Russian Federation has a set of signed agreements on joint film production that are oriented toward coproduction. As experts of the European audiovisual observatory believe, “coproduction with foreign countries is not very well developed in Russia” 2, which is proved by lack of yearly official statistics of completed joint projects in the reports published by the Ministry of Culture or the CF. The obstacle is the not entirely clear state policy in the sphere of film production, the absence of film commissions giving fiscal stimuli for attracting foreign film companies, and the insufficient number of business and educational programs in the film industry 3. Among the reasons that halt the development of joint production, experts point at the low grade of integration with countries that have a developed film industry and the low investing attractiveness of Russian films 4.

International cooperation plays the most active role in promoting Russian animation to international screens. Production companies themselves, the Animation Cinema Association (ACA), and the state are perfectly attentive to this segment. International distribution also plays an important role in the recoupment and success of the film, but only in relation to projects of corresponding quality that are characterized by universality of sense.

Animation does not need translation—it is intelligible for people of different mentality and of different cultural and religious traditions. An interest toward animation has always been manifested; due to one reason or another, however, it has remained unknown to the foreign spectator, with the exception of films participating in international festivals or broadcast on YouTube channels. In the last decade, Russian animators have become active participants in international markets, with many projects acquiring distribution abroad and international distribution making up to 50% of total takings. Significant are the results of the international distribution for the serial Masha and the Bear (Masha i Medved), which made 98,5% of the total “box office” in 2018. The project is an example of the successful expansion of Russian animation, having been translated into 37 languages across the world and broadcasted in more than 150 countries.

Russian feature-length animation also demonstrates good dynamics of international distribution. According to the data of the CF for 2016–2017, among the 10 most grossing films in international distribution, five are animation projects, four of which are feature-length animation films and one is a serial 5. If the takings of feature-length animation exceed those of feature films, it is bought by foreign countries more often than traditional films. This once again underlines its competitiveness on the world market, allowing to consider it a profitable segment of the national economy.

The highest takings of Russian films abroad in 2017 were made in China ($12.5 million, data of the CF) and achieved by Russian animation. This tendency remained in 2018, having showed dynamics of growth. Of the five films issued to Chinese distribution, three were animations, and their profit totaled nearly $9.8 million. Similarly, in Korea five animations were presented out of a total of seven Russian films.

Russian animation has been finding increasing demand in the international market. For instance, the 2016 animation film Quack Holidays (Kryaknutye Kanikuly) was bought by 12 countries for distribution, as was the animation Savva: Heart of the Warrior. The tendency prolonged in 2017, when two positions in the countries of distribution were occupied by animation films, namely Wolves and Sheep: Crazy Transformation, bought by 15 countries for distribution, and Fantastic Journey to OZ demonstrated in 13 countries. 2017 then showed an increase in the number of countries that expressed their interest in Russian animation. 2018 was no exception, with Russian animation again obtaining the leading spot. According to the data of the Film Distributor’s Bulletin, “the most essential contribution to foreign takings of Russian cinema was made by The Snow Queen 3. Fire and Ice: in four countries the total box office of the film in the first half-year was just shy of $14 mln” 6. The film was sold for distribution in 37 countries. In 2019 the fourth film of the Wizart franchise The Snow Queen: Through the Looking Glass was bought by 45 countries.

Russian animation (feature-length and TV series) is also actively selling to the world media market. It comprised 35% of the total volume of films exported in 2015–2016, with this index growing to 43% in 2017 and to more than 57% in 2018. Russian animation companies then continue to strengthen their positions abroad by presenting competitive projects. In addition, the CF, jointly with the ACA, takes active part in promoting the brand of Russian animation abroad.

Issuing projects corresponding to modern film standards increases the companies’ expenses for production; meanwhile, the development level of the national film distribution, the number of screens and the volume of the audience generated do not ensure an acceptable level of recoupment of the project only in the national distribution. Entering international markets becomes one of the factors securing the further development of the Russian animation industry. In 2018 the CF, supporting the creation of competitive Russian projects, began to allocate means not only to Russian distribution, but also to help promote film internationally, financing their dubbing and titration. Moreover, within the program stimulating international promotion, producers have been allowed to spend a part of the state financing received from the CF for advertising campaigns abroad since 2018.

Promotion to East-Asian market and collaboration with Chinese companies

By developing a joint form of production and promotion, the Russian animation is certainly mobilizing—though not toward Western collaboration. In fact, it is Chinese companies that are becoming its main partners. Russian animators are actively collaborating with colleagues from Asia, where the market of audiovisual production continues to grow and is now one of the largest and most prospective in the world. Experts estimate that, unlike Asian markets, the European market has reached its maximum capacity; besides, Europe does not have large investors and companies with extensive medium-level personnel.

Collaboration with Asian companies seems prospective, despite the specificity of the market and the peculiarities of the spectators’ mentality. This is connected not only to the rich historical and cultural heritage that China and Russia possess, but also to their long-term experience of intercultural cooperation. Liu Changzheng, vice president of the committee of the Chinese International Cartoon & Animation Festival in Hangzhou, notes that the “[…] friendly relations of the two countries and the common aspiration for the development of a cultural industry have laid favorable foundation for activating the cooperation of the two sides in the animation industry” 7. The Chinese market is one of the most rapidly developing in the world, its volume only second to the American market; taking into account its development rate, it certainly looks promising. The cooperation with Chinese companies and entering the Chinese market of audiovisual and brand production appears rather prospective for the Russian animation industry.

One further important aspect urges Russian companies toward cooperation, namely the organization of production. Throughout its development, the Russian industry has experienced difficulties connected with both the lack of medium-level qualified specialists and with the technical equipment of studios and the introduction of new technologies. Because Chinese partners are not short of these assets, this makes coproduction particularly attractive. Member of the Council for the Development of Russian Cinematography and president of the ACA Ilya Popov states that Russian animation is interested in cooperating with its Chinese peers. In his opinion, Russian animators “do not have possibilities for expanding […] production and do not have enough medium-level specialists. And the Chinese have a developed industrial base but no […] authoring teams. We could then unite our efforts in cooperation” 8.

Russia’s interest in collaborating with Chinese partners is also based on the fact that the Government of China largely supports its producers, compensating them with half of the interest rate on credit, lowering taxation for three years, and lowering rent to one yuan a month for one m2 for small studios (up to 500 m2). These measures are also attractive for Russian companies, since they allow filmmakers to lower their expenses in a situation of joint production.

A relatively weighty factor for collaboration is the struggle to overcome the closed nature of the Chinese market. In China, foreign cartoons are prohibited at prime time (from 6 PM to 10 PM); at any other time, the share of foreign cartoons must not exceed 40%. However, these limitations do not refer to animation made on the basis of agreements on joint production. Such agreements get free access to the Chinese market and have an advantage in distribution compared to foreign films.

Production company Riki as leader of Russian–Chinese cooperation

One of the first actors entering the Chinese market was the production company Riki, which presented the project Smeshariki to the Chinese audience in 2010. It first aired in March 2011 under the name Kai Sin Chiu. The project became the first Russian series imported by China from the Soviet times. In conjunction with the distribution of the series, the Chinese were publishing cookbooks with characters from Smeshariki, a magazine of the same name, and toys inspired by it were being sold. In 2013 part of the production was moved to China, which further simplified Riki’s access to the Chinese market. Nowadays, the serial airs on more than 60 Chinese channels.

Riki’s collaboration with its Chinese partners continued, and their cooperation went from distribution to joint production, using the technical potential of the rapidly developing Chinese animation industry. Smeshariki became so popular that the channel CCTV took the initiative of financing a new joint production of a spin-off series of Smeshariki named Panda and Krash. Apart from favorite rabbit Krash, a panda named Hehe became the series protagonist, with a plan to introduce about 50 new characters in the series. The copyright for the new series’ characters would be settled with a joint ownership: while the rights for Krash will be reserved to the Russian part, the character Hehe will belong to the Chinese partners.

The serial Panda and Krash has certainly become the largest coproduction project to date. The impulse for starting production was given in July 2017 at the plenary meeting of the Russian–Chinese Friendship Committee, when Riki and CCTV signed the agreement on cooperation aimed at a joint project. The makers would be Russian animation studio Petersburg and Chinese company CCTV Animation. The agreement envisioned 52 12-minute-long episodes made in 3D format with a production budget of 0.5 billion rouble (60 million yuan). The partners would invest equal sums in the project, with Riki spending this money in Russia and CCTV Animation in China. According to Ilya Popov, […] the whole creative part of the project—planning, invention of characters, models, locations, and draft animation will be done in Russia, while the fair animation and montage in China […] The final postproduction for the Russian version will be held in Russia, while the one for the Chinese version in China. A third party may have to be involved to promote and adapt the series coherently for the market 9.

Thus, while Smeshariki was adapted for Chinese spectators, the new series would be adapted for the Russian audience.

The first joint series made it to the screen at the end of 2017 until the end of 2018, being shown to Russian spectators during the New Year holidays of 2018–2019. The serial Panda and Krash is the largest project in Russian–Chinese joint animation serial production and the first project realized with an inter-governmental agreement on coproduction.

The new stage in the Russian–Chinese relations started on September 11, 2018, when an agreement of strategic partnership between Riki and the Chinese company Alibaba Cultural Media and Entertainment Group was signed. The parts agreed to cooperate on strategic level in the financing, production, promotion, and distribution in China and the rest of the world of the new animated content produced by Riki. The head platform for the promotion of Russian animation in China will be the largest video hosting site YouKu, property of Alibaba Group.

It is worth noting that, as early as 2014, the Chinese market met projects such as The Fixies (Fiksiki) of the studio Airplane (part of production company Riki), and Masha and the Bear of the company Animacord. Films of the studio Mills (Melnitsa), such as Three Heroes: Knight’s Move were widely distributed in China. Chinese studios were invited to participate in the production of animation films Belka and Strelka: Star Dogs (2010, KinoAtis), and Snow Queen (2012, Wizart Animation). Their participation, however, was not a form of coproduction; they acted as subcontractors for works on films, while all rights belonged to the Russian studios. Nonetheless, this interaction resulted in productive cooperation.

One of the first projects that received financial support from the Chinese side was the film Quack Holidays (Kryaknutye Kanikuly) of the company RIM. The Chinese holding Star Alliance Media 10 invested the main part of the production means, for a total budget of $12 mln ($5 mln from Russian investors and the CF). Along with financing and distribution, the Chinese side took over merchandising and creating video games based on the story. The film was initially planned by considering international distribution; thus, it was to answer international criteria in narrative quality and technical realization. To realize it, the producers called for production facilities in Canada, Spain, Peru, and Estonia. The script was authored by a joint team that included Russian scriptwriters V. Sveshnikov and I. Filippov and American scriptwriters B. Underwood and J. Michievicz, who had cooperated with the most prominent figures of the animation industry. The company Star Alliance Media highly evaluated the project’s spectators and the commercial potential when screening it in June 2016 on more than 7000 screens—it secured the eight place in the top 10 of Chinese distribution leaders. The participation of the Chinese company in the production let the film escape the system of quota and censorship at the scriptwriting stage. The project, obtaining the green light from censorship and the status of national film, soon went into distribution and became the second Russian animation film on Chinese screens. According to Chinese data, it sold for $2.3 mln in three days. Let us remember that its total at the Russian box office was only $1.2. In 2016, this was the best result of the Russian animation in the territory of the Celestial Empire.

Wizart Animation’s experience in coproduction

The cooperation of Chinese filmmaking company Flame Node Entertainment with the studio Wizart Animation, which has become the leader of high-budget, feature-length animation in the past few years, started at the production stage of the film Snow Queen. Having got acquainted with the working material and trailer of the film, head of Flame Node Entertainment Yi Feng at once decided to shoot it for distribution. However, a quota system for screening foreign films on the big screen existed in China; while for many years this quota only included 14 films, in 2012 it was extended to 34, and in 2014 it covered as many as 44 11, which is why Snow Queen was shot only after the Russian and world premieres. It took almost three years for the companies to complete all the procedures necessary for getting their distribution license. The film got access to Chinese distribution on 3000 screens (almost 10% of the total number of screens in 2015) and made good enough takings—$0.65 mln in the sole screening period. The cooperation continued after distribution.

In August 2015, Wizart Animation and Flame Node Entertainment signed a memorandum on the joint production of a franchise; however, plans for full cooperation failed. Yuri Moskvin, a producer of Wizart Animation, explained that instead of coproduction, which supposed joint management, production, and copyright for the film, the cooperation had been reduced to the Chinese company’s participation in the distribution of the film within its market. Despite this revision to the initial plans, the film Snow Queen 2: Refreezing (Perezamorozka) (2015) got distribution in China over and above the system of quota for foreign films and passed the home censorship regulated by the State Administration for Press, Publications, Radio, Photography, and Television of China (SAPPRFT). The participation of the distributing partner helped distribution within the local market, conditioning an increase in profit: while a foreign film usually gets 23% of distribution, a film of joint production obtains 43%.

 The participation of the Chinese company was also planned in the creation of the third part of the franchise, Snow Queen: Fire and Ice, which became a prime example of coproduction. The producers invited Robert Lence, Hollywood scriptwriter and coauthor of famous films such as Toy Story, Beauty and the Beast, and Shrek. According to Vladimir Nikolaev, executive producer of Wizart Animation, Lence made important changes in the script and the storyboard of the film as it was being prepared, transforming the concept designs to be better understandable for the American spectator. Foreign professionals also were invited to work on the soundtrack, invented by popular Hollywood composer Fabrizio Mancinelli, who also wrote music for Walt Disney Company films. The film was originally planned to be shot for international distribution, and employing foreign specialists at the pre-production stage became an important part of adapting the film to the requirements of the world market.

The budget of the film was, by Russian standards, quite considerable: 360 mln rouble (the budget of the first part had been 210 mln rouble, i.e., about $7 mln in the end of 2012, while the second part had been 300 mln rouble, or about $6.5 mln in 2014). Its cost was higher than that of films Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf 3 (with a budget of 244 mln rouble) and Three Heroes and Sea Tsar (with a budget of 175 mln rouble). For comparison, the budget of the film Frozen (2013) was $150 mln.

An important aspect of the partnership was that, apart from financing production (about 45% of the film’s budget comes from Flame Node Entertainment), professionals from Yi Feng’s company took part in working out the plot and introducing elements adapted for Chinese spectator. Though cooperation did not fully succeed, the film became a model for co-financing and thus obtained the status of national film in China. It made the Chinese screen in 2016 as a national project and became one of the most profitable Russian animation films, having taken the third spot in the box office takings rating in its first weekend of release.

The successful cooperation experience and distribution became the ground for further interaction. The studio took on making the fourth part of the franchise, Snow Queen: Through the Looking Glass. It world premiere took place even before the appointed date, on December 21, 2018, while in China it first screened in June 2019 as part of the program of the Shanghai International Film Festival. The joint Russian–Chinese project reached the top three in the first weekend of release, while in some countries it even headed the list, surpassing the film How to Train Your Dragon 3, authored by leading producers of world animation. In the resulting box takings, Snow Queen: Through the Looking Glass became one of the most successful films, having set up a record in foreign distribution. Only in the first weekend of distribution in Western Europe—in Germany, France, Poland, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and Latvia—as well as in Vietnam and Turkey, its takings were more than $5 mln. According to experts’ data, distribution in China would rack up $12 mln. The film Snow Queen: Through the Looking Glass is an eloquent example of coproduction, as it is based on joint financing and Chinese animators took part in its making. Having had stable success, Wizart Animation, in collaboration with Chinese partners, started working at an animation sequence on the motives of Snow Queen; its first season will include 26 series and is expected to be shot by the end of 2020.

The experience of joint work by Wizart Animation in cooperation with Flame Node Entertainment, who have organized their own animation studio, was realized in the project Wolves and Sheep: Crazy Transformation, for which the producers invited the CTB Film Company. It was the first joint Russian–Chinese feature-length animation film that entered world distribution and was presented as a product of coproduction. Wizart Animation took charge of its creative development, while the Chinese side participated in animation and rendering 12. It was then decided to shoot the franchise Wolves and Sheep: Pig’s Move. While this was started in Russia on January 24, 2019, it moved to China in the spring of the same year.

The staff problem is one of the factors urging Russian studios to resort to coproduction, as it allows them to employ qualified specialists. It was one of the reasons for the collaboration with Chinese partners in the making of the film The Skharev Tower Mystery: The Wizard of Balance (2015). Alexander Gerasimov, general director of the company Master-film, explained the conditions of the Russian–Chinese collaboration with a lack of personnel. In his opinion, specialists leave the 2D animation field and start mastering more prospective technologies, namely 3D. As a result, it is challenging to find animators and artists with the necessary level of creativity and qualification; studios must look for them outside the country. On the other hand, financial reasons dictated the choice made by Chinese companies. Cooperation with them, however, was built not on the principles of coproduction but on outsourcing. Chinese specialists were engaged in work at the routine production processes—animation, details, shading of the scenes. Alexander Gerasimov notes that the production process gave rise to difficulties based on mental and cultural differences, and specific psychological reactions to some events. As a result, these differences spurred the necessity to return to the “Russian-likeness” of the characters, to explain to the Chinese animators the peculiarities of the heroes’ behaviors and movement motivations, so that they could play a scene, draw a reaction, a facial expression, and gestures in the right way. Problems also arose because of the differences in organizing production at Chinese and Russian studios. Nevertheless, the experience of joint work proved invaluable, allowing to build the production structure more reasonably.

The examples of animation film production within international cooperation described above prove that there are many creative, industrial, and economic possibilities that are already being realized and may be considerably expanded in the future. The interest in such a collaboration, namely with China, evidently prevails, as the Chinese market is rapidly developing 13. This development is the result of the demographic boom, of a formed and supported culture of movie-visiting due to the number of screens incessantly growing in the consumer sphere 14 as well as of the law on the development of the film industry adopted in March 2017, when Chinese film production was included in the program for the development of national economy and society. It is predicted that this development will not slow down before 2030 15.

Russian companies are particularly active in their search for Chinese partners because they hope that this collaboration will let them surpass international leaders of the industry, ensuring the promotion of Russian production across the global market. Moreover, the Russian animation industry hopes that Chinese companies’ investments in film budgets will become one of the methods for realizing highly technological Russian projects. It is then expected that cooperation with China will continue growing. According to Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, film is the most prospective area of cultural collaboration between Russia and China. Overcoming the protectionism of the Chinese government regarding national films, the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Culture is negotiating quotas for Russian films. Despite measures at the government level aimed at intensifying cooperation between China and Russia in the sphere of film production, however, the volume of such coproduction is incomparable to that of Hollywood and Chinese companies. Nevertheless, the experience of interaction of Russian and Chinese companies in the field of animation gives us hope for a dynamic development of this bilateral cooperation.





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8 Ibid.

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10 The Chinese holding Star Alliance Media is a daughter structure of the company AirMedia Group (NASDAQ: AMCN).

11 China Mulls Upping Film Quota by 10 (Exclusive) // URL.: (accessed: 03.09.2018).

12 Rendering is the process of visualization in computer animation, or the base for calculating 2D or 3D image by means of software.

13 Al'-Nsur L.A., Makarov A.A. (2016) Faktory, vliyayushchie na vozmozhnosti rossijskoj kinematografii na kinorynke Kitaya [Factors Influencing on the Possibilities of Russian Cinema in China 's Film Market] // Kreativnaya ekonomika. — 2016. — T. 10. № 12. Pp. 1489–1502. (in Russ.). Al'-Nsur L.A., Makarov A.A. (2016) Faktory, vliyayushchie na vozmozhnosti rossijskoj kinematografii na kinorynke Kitaya [Factors Influencing on the Possibilities of Russian Cinema in China 's Film Market] // Kreativnaya ekonomika. — 2016. — T. 10. № 12. Pp. 1489–1502. (in Russ.).

14 Spectators under 30 visit cinema one or two times a week and constitute 2/3 of the total film audience.

15 The national idea and globalization: cinematograph in China // URL.:; Al'-Nsur L.A., Makarov A.A. ( 2016) Faktory, vliyayushchie na vozmozhnosti rossijskoj kinematografii na kinorynke Kitaya [Factors Influencing on the Possibilities of Russian Cinema in China 's Film Market] // Kreativnaya ekonomika. — 2016. — T. 10. № 12. Pp. 1489–1502. (in Russ.)


About the authors

Natalya Krivulya

Высшая школа (факультет) телевидения МГУ имени М.В.Ломоносова

Author for correspondence.
SPIN-code: 2563-1306

Doctor of Arts, Associate Professor, Scientific Department, Higher School of Television of Moscow State University named after M.V.Lomonosov

Russian Federation, Scientific Department, Higher School of Television of Moscow State University named after M.V.Lomonosov


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