Robot Trains’ new destination as Korea’s CJ ENM redirects

Animated series Robot Trains was once the proud engine of CJ ENM’s global animation ambitions. Now the Korean conglomerate is idling in the station while Italy’s Mondo TV steams ahead with 90% ownership of season three of the kids’ 3D CGI series. What happened? And what comes next?  

Once the tentpole of CJ ENM’s debut as a global animation producer, part of an investment of US$15 million for the first year and the flagship project of a team dedicated to developing a China business, Korea’s 3D CGI series Robot Trains is now being driven by Italy’s Mondo TV. 

The shift from driver to passenger on the property took a short four years: 2015-2019. Mondo TV moves forward on Robot Trains season three with 90% ownership. This is the first time Mondo TV, which invested an undisclosed amount in season two, will be in charge of the whole production. CJ ENM retains 10% of the new season and full ownership of the original property. Mondo TV will continue to take care of Robot Trains’ distribution worldwide (excluding Asia, including China) for audiovisual rights and licensing/merchandising. CJ ENM, which operates the Tooniverse kids cable channel in Korea, will distribute the 52x11-minute series in Asia (excluding China). The new season will be ready in autumn/winter 2020. 

CJ ENM itself isn’t being specific about the reasons for its decision to cede control of Robot Trains. The company says only that its ambitious focus on animation “remains unchanged” and that it “anticipates building a strategic relationship with Mondo TV”. Mondo TV hasn’t commented on the acquisition beyond saying it expects Robot Trains’ value as a broadcast and licenced property to increase. 

Clearly, things are changing. It’s easy to attribute CJ ENM’s animation redirect on China’s politically motivated distaste for Korean content, which effectively pulled the rug out from under CJ ENM’s China play. A  parallel reason could be that CJ simply wants to focus more on fewer productions. Giving pre-school series Robot Trains to Mondo TV in order to fund other properties would make sense.  

The costs of CGI animation in Asia range from US$8,000 to US$10,000 per minute for a handful of characters with limited environments. Even at the lower end, that’s close to US$5 million for 52 x 11-min episodes.  

Moving forward, CJ ENM says it will continue to invest in and produce animation. Projects in the pipeline include older-skewed animation Pucca, Bugsbot, Maca & Roni and JungleBox. 

The original aim to produce animation for global audiences has been overlaid with a focus on “digital-fitted animation” and a new appetite for partnerships, CJ ENM says. “We are open to work with other global partners instead of planning projects alone,” the company told ContentAsia. 

Current partners include Planeta Junior (Pucca’s pan-Europe distributor), and equity participation in animation studio Millionvolt (founded by Larva director Maeng Ju-gong). The year-old A:Lab initiative supports partnerships with Brick Studio (founded by Johnny Express director Woo Kyung-min) and with Animation Studio 38 (founded by Rainbow Ruby director Taesik Shin). A:Lab  launched in August 2018 to support the local production process from investment to distribution. 

CJ ENM’s current products include Pucca: Love Recipe; the second batch of the comedy/sitcom series delivers by end 2019. The first batch of the 78x7 mins series about an energetic girl who lives on the magical island of Sooga is already available. Another project is Bugsbot Ignition, which premiered on Tooniverse in July. CJ ENM is also involved in non-verbal comedy, Maca & Roni targetting 6-13 year olds; the three-minute episodes about two clumsy assistants to a genius inventor are in production and scheduled to be ready by December 2020. 

So there is activity. But few would be surprised if CJ ENM did admit to an animation pivot, and particularly for pre-school. High risk, slow/low returns, little or no China market, limited patience to build a track record... What else is a company to do? 

Published in ContentAsia Issue Five 2019, 3 October 2019