It has been five years since China’s DeZerlin Media made a big splash at AFM announcing an ambitious co-pro deal with London-based Zycon Media to produce and finance a slate of animated features and TV series for the global market, valued at $159 million. The first project in the pact was Watch the Skies, an action fantasy written and directed by Mark Byers (Criminal Act, Dragon Twins) about a marooned alien boy and the Earth kids who rescue him. The animated pic featured the voices of Sean Bean, Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Asa Butterfield.
Since then, the pioneering Chinese boutique studio has had its share of ups and downs, mostly due to the slowdown caused in the region by the COVID pandemic. Founded in 2010 in Qingdao by industry veteran Lin Zhang, DeZerlin is considered one of the top IP and content houses in Asia, with strong relationships in animation, live action, games, publishing and merchandising across Europe, Asia and North America. It has a wide range of interests and genres, from high-concept family fantasies such as Hawkins and Silver (loosely based on Treasure Island) to Dragon Resurrection, which is based on Dark Horse’s popular graphic novel and pitched as Jurassic Park meets Mission: Impossible — an action-adventure with a sci-fi twist.
We recently had the chance to catch up with studio CEO Lin Zhang to find out about DeZerlin’s plans for 2023 and beyond.
Making New Plans
“There is quite a different DeZerlin after COVID,” says Zhang. “This year, we’ll be celebrating our 13th anniversary. Our goal was to be a pioneer in the international market. When we started our business with the Dark Horse co-venture, Dragon Resurrection, that’s how I began working with Mark Byers, and it was very encouraging. It inspired me that we can enter the global market. The success of Monkey King proved to capital investors that an international movie can make money worldwide. So, Mark and I worked together and created a slate of ideas for animated movies and TV shows.”
Zhang points out that although animation is still considered in its early days in China, DeZerlin felt like it was a rocket ready to be launched. “We have a lot of local talent, ready for the global market. Our banks had a lot of confidence in us,” he says. “But when the epidemic hit, we were forced to downsize three times. We had to tell our staff that they had to leave the company or hang in with us until we got more funding. These past couple of years, only a few companies survived in our industry. But we’re ready to bounce back with new optimism and strong plans for the future.”
As Byers tells us, “We were in production on our animated feature Watch the Skies. We also signed Dean Semler (Oscar-winning cinematographer of Dances with Wolves, Maleficent and The Road Warrior) to direct Hawkins and Silver, which is a retelling of Treasure Island set in a steampunk world. That’s when the bottom dropped out. So now, we have made some changes and adapted our plans for a new post-pandemic era.”
According to Zhang and Byers, instead of producing Watch the Skies in CG animation, the producers are opting for a stylized 2D-animated feature. “When you are producing an animated movie in CG, you’re coming up against movies from Pixar, Disney and DreamWorks,” says Byers. “We were happy to be a 3D B-movie, but when all the money went away during the pandemic, we made this great decision to follow the Cartoon Saloon model: Let’s go back to the animatic and build a 2D movie from there. We had already recorded the voices with an A-list cast, so now the goal was to create an A-level 2D movie instead of a B-level 3D picture.”
“This is our first big animated movie, so we had a tough decision to make,” says Zhang. “We changed it from 3D to 2D, but we didn’t want to downgrade it. The movie (which is now renamed St’aar Runner) was written and in production for many years, and the market changes. The audience is hungry for a new look, and we are hoping to deliver a visually impressive entertainment.”
Another top priority for DeZerlin is an intriguing sci-fi fantasy series Phoenix Rising (working title). Described as a high-concept project where heroic forces fight kaiju monsters (StarCraft meets Pacific Rim!), this series has strong support from the Chinese government. “We have lots of support from the city of Zibo, which is famous for its ceramic industry,” explains Zhang. “Our heroes use ceramic weapons to fight the alien monsters, so we were very pleased when we got support from the city and they gave DeZerlin the opportunity to promote their culture and famous ceramic products.”
Zhang points out that because investments in TV and movie projects are considered high-risk in China these days, a good script and support from the government can really increase the value and popularity of a project. “We are lucky in many ways as the government has given us a lot of support without watering down the creative and artistic aspects of our projects,” he notes.
“The Chinese government’s policies have changed over the past few years and have become much more supportive of the animation industry,” adds Byers. “In the west, we are used to cobbling up financing from presales, tax rebates, outside investors, etc., but in China, government support on a municipal, province or state level gives more comfort to private investors. Once the government gives its seal of approval with money, then other investors are encouraged to jump in.”
On the TV side, DeZerlin is developing a fun retro 2D series titled Spider vs. Fly. “It’s our attempt to be very commercial,” says Byers. “It follows a spider and a fly as they battle each other in a mad scientist’s secret lab, so they are fighting each other with all kinds of weapons. They can build fantastic weapons, time travel, etc. It’s a dialog-free comedy and is a throwback to everyone’s favorite Tom & Jerry and Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote cartoons!”
Another interesting venture is DeZerlin’s local talent incubator Hot Pot! Cartoon, an innovative collaboration with animation veteran Fred Seibert and his FredFilms production shingle. Zhang, Byers and Seibert will supervise a select group of creators as they develop 10 animated shorts, which will be distributed globally as an anthology series.
For now, the studio is casting a wide net hoping to attract international interest in their rich collection of animated projects. “We are looking at partnerships in the Canary Islands, Canada and Europe,” says Zhang. “When someone from outside of China says they are interested in our projects, it can act as a catalyst for more interest. It can also change the dynamics locally. We are ready to form mutually beneficial partnerships that will help us bring new and exciting animated content to the world. We want everyone to get to know the new post-COVID DeZerlin.”
For more info, visit www.dezerlin.com.
The Feature Slate at a Glance
St’aar Runner. A coming-of-age sci-fi adventure about an alien boy who crashes on Earth, and along with his plucky young human companions, must find the parts to reassemble his ship. (In production.)
Utopia by the Sea. Inspired by 400-year-old classic tales from Pu Songling, a young half-human half-fairy boy defies his father and makes a perilous journey to the legendary Utopia to bring his mother back to life. (In pre-production.)
Hawkins and Silver. An adventurous young boy torn between a dull stepfather and a charismatic scoundrel discovers a map to buried pirate treasure. (Active development.)
Codename: Furball. London, 1940: As WWII rages, an unlikely group of former pets are trained as secret agents, and one young cat rises to the challenge. (Active development.)