BEIJING — Walt Disney Co. said it would join an initiative to develop China's animation industry, marking the latest push by Hollywood to expand into the world's most populous country.
The agreement announced Tuesday unites the Burbank entertainment giant with an animation arm of China's Ministry of Culture and China's largest Internet company, Tencent Holdings Ltd.
China's government has identified animation as a key area for development to boost the country's global influence, or "soft power." The interest in animation is due in part to the success of DreamWorks Animation's "Kung Fu Panda" franchise, which sparked wide debate within China about why the country can't leverage its culture as effectively as Hollywood.
Disney's China partnership echoes DreamWorks Animation's announcement of a joint venture with Shanghai Media Group, China's second-largest media company, to build a family entertainment company to produce animated and live action movies and TV shows for the Chinese market. That deal was unveiled in February when Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visited Los Angeles.
Disney said it would offer its expertise in areas such as story writing and market research to help develop local Chinese talent, the company said in a written statement.
"Our philosophy is to operate as the Chinese Walt Disney Company and as such will remain front and center to help local creative talent realize their dreams and help to create one of the most dynamic original animation industry sectors in the world," Stanley Cheung, managing director of Disney China, said in the statement.
Andy Bird, chairman of Walt Disney International, said: "Disney's involvement builds on our expertise and long-term commitment to nurture the local original animation industry."
Disney is currently building its first theme park in mainland China, a $3.7-billion attraction in Shanghai slated to open in 2015. The company also operates a network of English-language schools in China. Disney has had less success getting a dedicated television channel approved in the country, considered a vital part of its marketing strategy.
Although details on the partnership were sketchy, analysts described it as a potentially significant step by a major media conglomerate to build its footprint in China, which was the fastest-growing market for movie ticket sales in 2011, with $2 billion in box-office revenue.
"It's a big deal that they're doing this," said Ron Diamond, publisher of AWN.com, an online animation magazine. "You're taking America's creative brand and bringing it into a culture that has a long history of storytelling and is hungry to spend. This is a big opportunity for China and for Disney."
Stanley Rosen, professor of political science at USC and an expert on China, said healthy competition between Disney and DreamWorks — two studios with a long history of rivalry — may have played a part in the deal and fits China's long-term strategy of becoming a player in the global animation business, he said.
"Right now [the Chinese] need expertise in terms of telling stories, using technology and doing animation," Rosen said. "This is a way for the Chinese to succeed overseas."
The venture is the latest move by studios and production companies to mine China's vast market. Last year, Glendale-based DreamWorks signed a deal with online video site Youku.com to distribute the studio's popular "Kung Fu Panda" movies in China. Beverly Hills-based Real Inc. also has partnered with Beijing SAGA Luxury Cinema Management Co. to equip the Chinese theater chain with 3-D technology. Imax Corp., the Canadian big-screen theater company, also formed a joint venture with China's largest cinema operator, Wanda Cinema Line Corp., to open 75 theaters by 2014.
Many studios and independent film producers and distributors are hoping to capitalize on a recently negotiated trade agreement with China that significantly eased restrictions on distributing movies in the country. The accord increases the number of foreign movies allowed into China under its current quota system and gives foreign studios a larger slice of box-office revenue.
Pierson reported from Beijing and Verrier from Los Angeles.