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‘Boonie Bears’: How Two Plucky Bears Are Driving a Billion-Dollar Chinese Franchise

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When Daisy Shang first came to Cannes in 2008, the Chinese animation industry was still really just starting to find its feet, and billion-dollar franchises must have seemed like a dream.

As the executive president of Fantawild Holdings and chairwoman of Fantawild Animation tells it now, animated productions that pushed their box office past around $14 million (RMB 100 million) were a rarity – even as the Chinese box office was breaking record after record – and, on the French Riviera, Shang found an international market that still viewed Chinese animation as one of the film industry’s great unknowns.

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Shang had arrived on the Croisette with two of Fantawild’s first animated TV titles to sell – the dinosaur battle-themed Dino Rampage and aquatic adventures of Conch Bay. But the mission was really more about research, as her company looked to shift its focus pretty much fully away from the high-tech equipment and multi-media technology it had been built on. By 2008, Fantawild had found those two markets too cluttered, and the company decided to use the technical expertise it had been developing to segue into animation.

“We were among a few [Chinese] companies to go to Cannes, and I think we were lucky to be able to sell our programs even at the first market,” says Shang via video call. “I think people saw the quality in our products and they had confidence in our products and so we started to sell our programs overseas.

“Only a very few buyers had worked with China in those days. We brought two early programs and clients told us the quality was good and that our stories were also interesting, and so they wanted to try us out.”

Taking onboard what she’d seen and heard, Shang went back to Fantawild’s southern China base in Guangdong and basically rebuilt the company’s future.

By 2014, Shang had returned to Cannes and she had brought the Boonie Bears with her, a move that over the next decade would see her company collect more than $1 billion in box office returns from the cartoon characters’ big-screen antics while expanding their IP footprint across everything from hamburgers to theme parks.

“By the time it came to creating the Boonie Bears, we’d received a lot of feedback from our clients. By then we knew what kind of programs they lacked and what kind of program their audience liked,” explains Shang.

And it seems the Boonie Bears ticked all the boxes. A decade on and the now 10-film franchise this year broke the $1 billion box office mark.

Initially released as a TV series in 2012, Boonie Bears follows the travails of two friends who bond over the roles they assumed as protectors of their forest home. Initially, Fantawild had plucked three bears from the supporting cast in their series Kung Fu Masters of the Zodiac but the company thought three would be too many characters to focus on. So, those three bears morphed into two, Briar and Bramble, and an assortment of side characters, including Logger Vick and Warren, the red squirrel.

The Boonie Bears series has been wildly successful domestically – with Chinese media claiming more than 200 billion online hits, has so far sold to around 80 markets and on to platforms of such entertainment giants as Disney, Sony, Netflix and Discovery Kids.

But the big payday came when Fantawild branched out into movies, beginning with 2014’s Boonie Bears: To the Rescue – which saw the two bears trying to protect an orphaned girl, as well as their forest – and then with nine follow-ups, including the ninth movie, Boonie Bears: Guardian Code, which sold wide at Hong Kong’s Filmart in 2024.

Boonie Bears: Guardian Code Fantawild Animation

“We tried to build an IP for not only the Chinese, but also those outside of China,” says Shang. “Before we rolled out this IP, we had many different types of content – I think it was more than 10. Before we started with the bears, we had produced Kung Fu Masters of the Zodiac, Chicken Stew, Brainy Bubbly Bug Buddies, and others, and from this content development, we gained experience about how the [animation] market works [asking] what is the market, what do consumers like?

“We also carried out some research into the market to see what kinds of cartoons were becoming popular. This all led us toward the Boonie Bears. We also discovered that people had to find the stories relatable. They had to be able to see their own lives in the lives of these characters.”

While animated features date back to the early days of Chinese cinema and the iconic and influential Princess Iron Fan (1941), the first of hundreds of productions based on the 16th-century text Journey to the West, the genre hadn’t really kept pace with the Chinese film industry’s meteoric rise during the first decade of the 2000s.

Shang claims it was rare for animated films to pass around RMB 100 million ($14 million) until the record-setting Boonie Bears: To the Rescue became the then-biggest grossing animated Chinese film with around RMB 245 ($41 million) in its release year 2014.

Rance Pow, CEO of consultancy Artisan Gateway, says the Boonie Bears’ success has been built on “evolving storylines” that deal with such topics as space travel, genetics, environmental protection, and “keeping up with the times.”

The films also came into the market with a well-established fanbase and were delivered for release during the Chinese New Year boom box office period.

“It is family-friendly entertainment that crosses cultural hurdles,” he said. “There are positive attitudes and values, of course, authored from a Chinese perspective [including language] and sensibilities.”

Fantawild keeps pointing to “relatable characters” and storylines that resonate. Instead of life-and-death struggles between the bears and the logger, for example, the company claimed in a statement that it’s more a “clash of ideas and principles: The logger wants to cut down trees for money, essentially portraying a working-class character, while the bears aim to protect the forest which is their home.”

“Logger Vick is just like everyone, just like us,” says Shang. “He is not a bad man, and he is just trying to make his way. He gets a lot of pressure from his boss, and he just has to do the things he does to survive. People everywhere can relate to that.”

In the decade since Boonie Bears hit the big screen, Fantawild has expanded their staff numbers to between 18,000 and 20,000 – depending on what projects are ongoing – and then there are those theme parks and those burgers.

“The related business covers Boonie Bears-themed attractions in Fantawild parks, Boonie Bears-branded zones, hotels, live shows and we have stores, and we developed a lot of merchandise with licensees,” says Shang. “We even have food like the Boonie Bears Burger. But our main goal is still that we are trying to create more and more successful films and series. We think that the quality gets better and better each year. We’re always looking towards the next one and trying to make that one the best.”

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