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Next Gen: A Chinese meme, ghosting producer, and lucky break led to Netflix's biggest animated film

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Sep 14, 2018, 3:40 PM EDT

The international sales market at Cannes generally runs on two parallel tracks: Big names make splashy deals for high-profile movies, while relatively unknown production companies hock not-so-high-profile projects to international distributors hungry for programming. So it created quite the stir and raised more than a few eyebrows online when, at this year’s festival, Netflix plunked down $30 million for Next Gen, a Chinese-Canadian animated sci-fi film from a pair of first-time feature directors and a studio that had never made a movie before. 

The story of how Next Gen got made and then found its way to Cannes is even more unusual than what curious observers probably expected — but it’s also quite possibly emblematic of the future of the film industry.

It began, as do seemingly all worthy modern stories, with a meme. Back in 2008, an artist in China named Wang Nima created his own riff on the American “Rage Comic,” a Reddit-grown comic form that couples consciously janky art and the hair-trigger anger inherent to the internet. The style, which became known as “Baozou,” was instantly popular in China, and Wang started up a site called to build on his creation. Fast-forward five years and the Baozou site had become a digital empire, with stand-up comedy, web series, and user-generated content, sort of a Chinese version of Funny or Die.

In late 2013, one of the company’s investors suggested that its young staff try to edge into making a movie, a notion that surprised and intrigued the creative team there.

“At the time we had about 10 million strip comic submissions, though 99.9 percent of the strip comics were not entertaining at all,” Olivia Hao, an executive at Baozou and an executive producer on Nex Gen, told SYFY WIRE. “But we knew we had this database, so we ran the data and one of the most popular posts ever on the community was 7723.”

The comic, incidentally created by Nima himself, told the story of a busted robot that had to delete some of its memories every single day to stay alive. Hao took the lead on the screenplay — it was her first time ever writing a movie — and they shopped around for Chinese animation houses. They were surprised to see the price tag attached to computer animation production, but that was a minor problem compared to the runaround they were getting from the production house they first tried to partner with.

“They were keeping me away from their American producer, and just kept saying to me, ‘Go back and write another draft and submit it back to us,’” Hao remembered. “And I was like, OK, we need to meet this producer and get to know what the direction of change is, and that led to a trip to Los Angeles.”

It was Hao’s first time in America, and the trip did not get off to an auspicious start. They set up a meeting through a precarious connection, a friend of a friend who had a contact in L.A., and the producer who was supposed to be their partner just never showed for the meeting. Welcome to Hollywood.

It was a tough blow, traveling 6,000 miles to get stood up by some mysterious producer, and the Baozou crew went to blow off some steam at a party with that friend of a friend. They got to talking with someone at the gathering, just making some small talk, and Hao mentioned to someone that they were staying in Pasadena. It wouldn’t have been a Hollywood party without some industry talk and name-dropping, and someone recommended that they go visit an animation studio in Pasadena.

With nothing to lose, the Baozou emissaries took them up on the suggestion. The next day, at this random studio that they visited only after being ghosted by the producer they had hoped to meet, Hao and her colleagues wound up stumbling upon the team that would ultimately bring their very fledgling notion of a movie to life.

Kevin R. Adams had worked as an animation supervisor and character designer for Disney and The Simpsons, and was branching out into creating his own projects. He hit it off with Hao and agreed to do a cleanup pass at the script. Trying to patch together old drafts and mend obvious seams wasn’t working out, so they decided to go back to square one, returning to the original core of the story and building out from there. Adams brought on his creative partner, Joe Ksander, to help out with the writing, and soon enough they were all-in on the project.

“At some point, when we finally realized that what they're asking for was basically the story we've always wanted to tell but never could, it went from being just a cleanup writing assignment to the opportunity of a lifetime,” Adams told SYFY WIRE.

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Credit: netflix

They expanded the story, shifting the focus from the hard drive-challenged robot to the young technophobe girl, Mai, who becomes her de facto owner. As the script developed, they added absentee parents, an evil corporation, and satire about our slide into isolation via social media and the trust we place in cold, easily manipulated hunks of metal and wire.

“The idea is that in order to play perfectly against 7723, a robot who has to choose which memories to delete, there's a girl who has memories that she doesn't want, that she wants to get rid of,” Ksander said. “She's got this trauma in her past. So these seem like perfect opposites, but of course they turn out to be exactly the right person for each other to help them get over their emotional trauma. You know, for kids.”

It seems like a relatively simple, immediately relevant idea, but the challenge wasn’t so much in crafting a narrative as it was in creating a movie that seamlessly blended its Chinese source material and the more Western aesthetics and story construction that the new team brought to the table. The easiest way to do that was to put the two teams in the same room — and this time, the Americans went to China.

“I flew the guys over to China and had a big meeting with my writers,” Hao said. “It was a funny couple of days of a lot of hand gestures. A lot of funny communication. There was a bit of a language barrier, but we managed to hit it off really well, and those guys really like the same kind of stuff we liked. A lot of Japanese anime, a lot of old kung fu movies.”

With plenty of cultural references in common, it made it easier to plot out the story. Mai (voiced by Charlene Yi) is a rebellious teenager who resents the personal technology that has consumed Greenland, the fictional bubbly Blade Runner-esque city that looks like Beijing covered in smiling drones and a bright color scheme. Her grudge is personal; her dad left when she was a kid, and her mom is obsessed with gadgets and robots, most of which are made by an Apple-Amazon hybrid company run by a charming CEO who receives the sort of adulation that Elon Musk got before he went nuts this past summer.

The CEO isn’t the technical brains behind the operation — he’s got his own Wozniak, a nebbish inventor (voiced by David Cross) who has been secretly working on a large robot that is sentient in a way that the others are not. Mai and the robot, code-named 7723, wind up crossing paths, and soon enough he starts trailing her, looking for friendship in all the wrong places. A good chunk of the second act features Mai tricking 7723 (voiced by John Krasinski) into whacking other robots, a strikingly dark twist for a PG-rated film.

Weaponizing technology is a pretty universal concept, but the design took a bit more work.

“You tend to pull from your references, and Joe and I grew up on Amblin films and things like that, so the harder thing was to make it read true to a Chinese audience,” Adams said. “What we were aiming for in that world of Greenland was a mix of Beijing and a little bit of New York and a little bit of Amblin neighborhoods from E.T. Instead of just doing one version and taking all the text out and replace it for different countries, it's a melting pot. People speak Chinese and they speak English. We took out the things which were specific only to one culture, and leave the things which had a little bit of crossover between the two.”

Hao describes a lot of “hard choices” being made in the writing and production process, cut jokes that hit with Chinese audiences but wouldn’t make sense to western viewers, and vice versa. Plays on words were particularly tough to make work, given the language barrier and sentence structure. The foul-mouthed dog had his dialogue rewritten over and over again — Mai’s dog Momo not only talks, he trash-talks — to calibrate it to jokes that would please all kinds of viewers.

Next Gen

Finding the right flow for the story and integrating the small cultural nuances was another challenge. North American movies need to work up to their emotional midpoints, while Chinese audiences, they were told, aren’t as concerned about a long road to buying into the moment. And a late third-act twist, suggested by the Baozou writing staff, led to major structural rewrites, changing the villains in particular.

It was a refreshing change for two filmmakers who had spent so many years in the studio system, which can often feel restricting and strictly commercial.

“Even the penultimate version of the outline that we wrote, which they quite liked, we were doing something that we thought could get us North American distribution fairly easily, it was like the DreamWorks model,” Adams said. “We were so inside the system that we're thinking that's the only kind of film you can make. It was Olivia and them saying no, we have an appetite for something different, and we'll figure out how to get it to the viewer afterward.”

That meant a more challenging main character — Mai was more “likable” at first, the filmmakers say — and an upped quotient of action scenes. They were unafraid to have a lead character ordering an earnest, childlike robot to murder its fellow cybernetic machines.

The animation took place in Toronto, done by artists also working independent of the major studio system. The flatter structure allowed the production to work faster and leaner, without the sort of chain of command that slows down major movie studios. It’s a bit ironic, given that two of China’s biggest conglomerates, Alibaba and Wanda, invested in the movie, but that sort of physical distance between studios and financiers tends to create some measure of autonomy.

The movie wasn’t even finished when they brought it to Cannes, yet it still sparked a bidding war. Netflix paid $30 million for the rights in all markets but China, where the movie will get a big screen run during their next big national holiday weekend.

The streaming giant was unafraid of plunking down so much money for an unfinished product, at least in part because it was able to offer insights from its vast treasure trove of user data. Netflix execs suggested toning down some of the foul language (for everyone but Momo), which Adams and Ksander had no problem doing, understanding that it would help the stuff they left land a bit better.

The Baozou team also had some final input, in particular for the Chinese release. As much as they did their best to create universal jokes, the writers at the Chinese site still replaced some American-skewing punchlines with ones that might work better for the domestic audience there. They even reanimated the mouths of talking characters to avoid the appearance of bad dubbing, a luxury afforded by animation.

Universal stories with true localization on streaming platforms — it sure sounds like the future.