Out with the old
Jonathan So’s apps for schoolkids are replacing textbooks
The man behind the creation of China’s 2003 hit animation series Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, Jonathan So Wing-lok, is now the president of Cartoon Nation Media (Shenzhen), where he has devoted the past few years to making educational apps for young children.
The founder of the company, his new venture began after the success of a story-telling iPhone app based on his animation series. “The app became very popular and we began thinking of making educational apps with our strong team of animation designers,” So says.
By 2013, the 47-year-old’s company had produced about 1,500 apps for the mainland China and Hong Kong markets, investing about 30 million yuan. Roughly 300 of these were free apps for Hong Kong primary school students to use on their iPads, produced in collaboration with the Education Bureau and charity organisation Po Leung Kuk. The remaining 1,200 were designed for pre-school and kindergarten children in mainland China from three to six years old.
“We produced about 400 apps annually over a period of three years,” So says. “These apps are divided into eight subjects comprising 50 apps each, which are launched on a weekly basis following a curriculum programme.”
The apps combine multimedia and animated elements and, as they are for use on light electronic devices, can easily replace heavy textbooks.
Based in Shenzhen and Beijing, So leads a team of 120 staff from Beijing, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Hong Kong. The team is split into three groups: the content team, the multimedia team and the IT team. “Managing these talents requires frequent flying – 120 flights in 2013 – as my main role is to facilitate communications in order to turn conceptual ideas into real products,” So says.
So is still often asked about the secrets of success behind his original animated series. “People are still looking at what I did ten years ago,” he says. “The only advice I can offer them is: don’t imitate me. This is because the market has changed so much in the past decade and simply following my path won’t lead you to success.”
According to So, the business environment of mainland China’s animation industry – from companies and government to consumers – is completely different than it was when he first entered the market in 2003.
He says that the profit models of animation production companies in China – licensing earnings in particular – are very different from countries such as the US and Japan. In the US, about 90 per cent of profits come from box office earnings and about 10 per cent from licensing. In Japan, the split is roughly 60/40. In China, however, only 10 per cent of the profits come from the box office, with 90 per cent coming from licensing. With China’s notoriously large market for counterfeit goods, this creates both problems and opportunities.
“Only 20 per cent of Pleasant Goat’s side products found in mainland China may be licensed – the rest is not,” So says. “However, the Chinese market is so big that this 20 per cent represents huge business. The rest, which may be counterfeit products, becomes free promotion for the brand.”
According to So, cartoon characters are an important aesthetic element of life. In compact and densely populated cities such as Japan, people can feel relaxed when they see cartoon characters on the streets. “Places like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen are also becoming high-intensity cities and people see the need to take a break and enjoy the mentally soothing aspects of cartoons and animation,” So says.
Following research into animation conducted in collaboration with the Chinese government and groups from the education sector, So has found huge potential for creative and educational products designed to nurture Chinese children.
“It is a little thing in life that can make a difference,” So says, adding that through story-telling, cartoons can deliver simple guidelines for living, such as saying “thank you” or giving way on the streets.
While So’s creative direction has been influenced by a number of cartoon and animated productions, he says that one of the main drivers behind his business vision is one of his parents.
“I was influenced by my mother, who helped build local schools when [my family] did business in the mainland,” So says. “She didn’t just sign a big cheque. She actually went to purchase bricks and mortar to make sure everything was done properly. I don’t have great ambitions, but I think my products can contribute something in building a better generation for the next 20 or 40 years.”
FIGHTING FOR INSPIRATION
Japanese cartoon characters from Jonathan So’s youth, such as giant robots and masked crime fighters, had a strong creative influence on him: “They stimulated my
imagination as a kid. I think that is the most important thing for cartoons.” He lists his main inspirations.
Mazinger Z A Japanese “super robot” manga series written and illustrated by Go Nagai and released in 1972.
Kamen Rider A TV series and weekly science fiction manga created by Shotaro Ishinomori.
Getter Robo Another super robot manga series created by Ken Ishikawa, launched in 1974.