On the 16th floor of a Shanghai office building, dozens of fresh-faced young animators are studying painting, sculpting and acting.
They're participating in film-appreciation workshops — Woody Allen's "Match Point" was a recent pick — and learning the latest software tools. Teaching them via video connections were some of the most experienced artists in Los Angeles, veterans who brought to life hits such as "Shrek" and "Madagascar."
But it won't take years for these newbies, many of them recent art-school grads, to get their big break working on a Hollywood blockbuster. As employees of Oriental DreamWorks, they're already staff artists on "Kung Fu Panda 3," set for release in January.
The runaway success of the "Kung Fu Panda" franchise inspired both awe and envy for Chinese who wondered how Americans came up with a billion-dollar global phenomenon that combines two quintessential elements of Chinese culture — a bumbling black-and-white bear and martial arts.
That sense of admiration and frustration helped smooth the way for DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg to create Oriental DreamWorks in 2012, a $330-million joint venture without precedent in the entertainment industry.
"Being able to be a bit of a pioneer in that market, I think could be incredibly and uniquely valuable for us," Katzenberg said in an interview. "If we succeed, it could be a game changer for us."
Hollywood studios have been scrambling to expand their business in China to capitalize on a booming box office, which is expected to overtake U.S. box-office receipts by 2018. DreamWorks is in an enviable position: The $96.3-million haul for the second installment of "Kung Fu Panda" in 2011 still stands as the highest gross ever for an animated film in China.
The creation of Oriental DreamWorks has already resulted in preferential treatment for "Kung Fu Panda 3" in China. The movie's recent designation as co-production will allow the company to receive a larger share of revenue than foreign studios typically receive when their films are allowed into China under its quota system.
Third installments in even the most successful franchises are far from sure bets, but the studio is making every effort to boost the film's odds of being a hit with Chinese audiences. The movie is breaking new ground by having two versions, in which characters are animated so that their speech is in sync with both English and Mandarin. To create the Mandarin-language version will take about 25% more time and effort, adding to the budget of the film that's estimated near $140 million.