Alibaba Film Chief Grants First Interview: What China Can Do for Hollywood

Jasper James
“We don’t want to just re-create a traditional movie studio,” says Zhang Wei, photographed Nov. 13 in Alibaba Pictures’ offices in Beijing.

In her first sit-down since becoming Jack Ma's top global film exec, Zhang Wei reveals what China's web giant can offer Tinseltown (and it's not just Superman sheets).

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Although her studio has yet to release a single film, and her name remains unfamiliar to most in the industry, Alibaba Pictures president Zhang Wei arguably is the most powerful woman in Chinese entertainment. Shortly after Alibaba Group founder and executive chairman Jack Ma took his Chinese e-commerce behemoth public in September 2014 — raising a historic $25 billion on the New York Stock Exchange — he handpicked Zhang to become the chief international strategist and outward face of his ambitious new film endeavor. Ma's expansion into film is part of a rapidly growing entertainment empire that spans mobile movie ticketing services, cinema distribution tech, minority stakes in top local movie studios Huayi Brothers and Le Vision, the Netflix-like streaming video service Tmall Box Office, a multiyear movie licensing deal with NBCUniversal, a part­nership with Paramount as the "official promotional partner in China" for Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation and plans to fully acquire leading online video site Youku Tudou for $4.8 billion.

The job is a logical move for Zhang, whose connection to Chinese entertainment stretches back to her childhood. In junior high school in Beijing, she won a competition to star in a weekly kids talk show called Our Generation, which she hosted throughout high school. Later, after graduating from Seton Hill University in Pennsylvania and earning an MBA from Harvard Business School, she returned to China in 1999 as host of CCTV's groundbreaking business show Dialogue — the first local talk show to introduce Fortune 500 business leaders to the Chinese audience — interviewing CEOs such as Jeffrey Immelt, Larry Ellison and Sumner Redstone. While the Western press suggested she harbored ambitions to become the "Oprah of China," Zhang, who lives in Beijing with her husband and 2-year-old son, scoffs at the notion, saying the show merely was a hobby while she advanced her core pursuit of becoming a business leader. Her resume also includes stints as managing director of CNBC China and COO at Chinese TV network Star (during the period it was owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp). 

In 2008, Zhang joined Jack Ma's Alibaba Group, where she spent several years heading up corporate development, investment and acquisitions from various roles. When Ma began his audacious drive into the entertainment sector in 2014, Zhang's international media background made her a natural candidate to lead the company's nascent film and TV business. She was sent to close the $805 million takeover of Hong Kong-based ChinaVision Media, which would soon be rebranded Alibaba Pictures Group. The new subsidiary later poached Zhang Qiang, then vice president of the all-powerful state-backed distributor China Film Group, to serve as its CEO. Zhang (no relation) is said to focus on Alibaba Pictures' domestic Chinese business, while Zhang Wei has been given free rein to set up an office in Los Angeles and build relationships with Hollywood and other overseas territories — all in an effort to fulfill Ma's vision for the young company to emerge as a premier global studio within the span of a few years.

In a pair of firsts for Zhang — "this is our first week in this office and my first interview in this job" — THR met with the busy exec in Beijing to discuss how she plans to follow through on Ma's promise to turn Alibaba into "the biggest entertainment company in the world."

Is there a U.S. studio that you have set as a benchmark for Alibaba Pictures?

I don't think we're like anyone else. What makes us different is that we're new, of course, but also that we come at the industry from a different angle. We have a lot of Internet DNA in our genes, and that's what makes us unique in this space. Our goal is to bring additional value to the table so that we can fuel the growth of the film industry here in China. And that involves leveraging the resources in our ecosystem — the brainpower and all of the things we have built. With that, we understand that you can't just get in on one piece. So that's why we're getting into the content creation business and why we're also engaged in content marketing and the online and offline distribution business. Our acquisition of [online video site] Youku Tudou sort of completes the online distribution picture for delivering content to users.

What kind of value can Alibaba offer to your Hollywood partners?

I went to talk to all of the studios, and the first thing everyone wonders is what an e-commerce company can actually do for them. There are a few things. One, if you think about the past, one of the biggest disconnects the studios face is that they never really know, in a detailed, comprehensive way, who is coming to see their movies. Even the filmmakers would probably like to know this — how old are they, where are they from, do they have kids, what are their other interests, what's their living situation, what type of people are they? We talk about demand-driven entertainment. Bringing the Internet deeper into the entertainment business is the best way to solve that puzzle.

How does Alibaba achieve that?

You saw our acquisition for Yulekei, which is a cinema-ticketing solution provider; you're familiar with Tabao Movie, our online ticketing platform; and also Yulebao, the online crowd-financing platform. The essence of all of this is building a path to connect the audience with the content, so that the content providers know who their customers are. 

Break it down for us. What role does Tabao Movie play? 

We have hundreds of millions of users on our parent company's e-commerce platform, and they are actually the core of the movie audience in China — the people who shop online are the same people who go to the movies here. The movie audience is much younger in China, as going to the movies is a lifestyle change. The generation before went to karaoke, now they go to the movies as a primary source of entertainment. That's why you see such robust growth in terms of screen development, et cetera. Underneath our platforms, it's the same user database. People who come onto Tabao Movie to buy tickets are already Alipay users [Alibaba's third-party online payment platform, which commands just under half of China's online payment market]. This gives us a wealth of consumer data on our ticket buyers. We also understand that we have a great responsibility with so much data. 

Zhang’s new office in Beijing includes the mascot for UCWeb, the maker of China’s most popular mobile browser, which is owned by Alibaba.

And why does a company with Alibaba Pictures' deep pockets need a crowd-financing tool? 

There are so many parties that want to invest in the movie business in China, finding financing isn't the issue. For me, Yulebao is much more than just a financing tool. It's really an interactive platform for the content to engage with the fans early on in the process. People buy into a project on Yulebao because they passionately love the IP or they feel the story reflects their life. With their investment, they're telling us that they love this content and they are committed to it and will tell their friends about it before the movie has even been made. And then we interact with them throughout the process. We'll invite some of them to our focus groups, arrange special events with the stars, even some set and location visits. If they prove to be good marketing partners by getting other people involved, we'll find even more way to reward them. We believe marketing should take place throughout the whole process, to build momentum. It shouldn't just be done before the theatrical release. This allows us to identify exactly who the biggest fans are and interact with them. In some instances, we would actually decline some portion of financing from corporate players, so that we can leave a chunk for the fans.

Initially there was some skepticism within the investor community about Alibaba's pivot toward entertainment — that these investments were somehow window dressing or a diversion from the core e-commerce business.

I think this year's Singles Day [China's version of Black Friday] clearly demonstrated how the businesses complement one another. The first step was to create this Singles Day shopping event. This year's Gala added a huge celebration and entertainment experience leading up to the door opening of the Singles Day online sale. On top of countless Chinese stars, we had pieces featuring Kevin Spacey in character as Frank Underwood from House of Cards, and Daniel Craig promoting Spectre. I worked on these pieces. The way I explain it to people is, think of Black Friday and the way people line up waiting to get into the shops. Well, instead of just waiting, we're having a giant party on the street outside Macy's, and Daniel Craig and Kevin Spacey are there. Then the door opens, and we all go shopping. Blending shopping and entertainment — it's a brilliant idea. (Alibaba racked up $5 billion in sales in the first 90 minutes of Singles Day.)

How do Alibaba's e-commerce assets benefit Alibaba Pictures' entertainment interests — and Hollywood partners?

Merchandising is a big piece. In the U.S., theatrical makes up maybe 30 to 40 percent of revenue. In China, theatrical is the majority by far. There's so much value that has not been developed yet in the merchandising space. We believe we have a unique advantage here. We have close to 10 million sellers on our e-commerce platform. Collectively, they can make anything you can imagine. And it's a one-stop service, from design, manufacturing, logistics to customer service — all the ways to deliver to our hundreds of millions of users. The one challenge our sellers face on our platform is how to market their products and how to differentiate themselves. A bed sheet is a bed sheet until you put Superman on it, and then it becomes something entirely different to a little kid. Associating great products with great IP is a natural way forward.

“This is a drawing that some of the participants and I made at Alibaba’s Global Conference on Women and Entrepreneurship,” Zhang says.

From the Hollywood side, there's apt to be a real concern about quality control if using high-value IP.

We have a credit system for all our sellers on our system. Through our knowledge of our sellers, we can select the most qualified producers in any category. For example, for Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, we came up with about 30 products, but we worked closely with Paramount's merchandising team, sending them designs and samples throughout the whole process. We showed many directly to Tom Cruise as well, to make sure he was OK with how they represented the Mission: Impossible brand. This is our value: connecting both parties. In the past, how does a backpack maker in Zhejiang province connect with Paramount and Tom Cruise in such an efficient and reliable way? It was just impossible.

The true Hollywood-China co-production movie — at least in terms of content — is a very tricky equation. No one has really hit it yet.

Early on you have to identify who your core audience is. For some co-production projects, most of the audience is here in China. It should be a local-language film for China. The market can support that. We can't dream that every Chinese movie will travel around the world. We have to be realistic. … We're also actively working with IP holders around the world to acquire rights to stories that have a fan base both here in China and internationally — for co-productions with global appeal. There are a lot of common values that China shares with the world, so there should be plenty to focus on. It's going to happen, and when it does, it will happen naturally. We can't force it.

Tao Dolls, the mascot of Alibaba Group’s online shopping websites.

Jack Ma is known for creating opportunities for women in his businesses. What's it like for female executives in China and at Alibaba?

At the top level, we are one of very few companies that has lots of female leaders. But in general, in China most women work. It's not like other Asian countries where many women stay in the domestic sphere. Chairman Mao said women lift half of the sky. Jack always jokes that Alibaba owes all its success to women. Why? Because so many of our online consumers are female. But that's just on the consumer side; Alibaba also has the highest ratio of female executives of any major tech company. Fifty percent of our full workforce is female, which is already exceptionally rare for a tech company. I've been with the company for seven and a half years, and I've yet to feel any kind of glass ceiling.

When you and Ma made your first trip to Hollywood, there was a lot of excitement surrounding the Los Angeles office you were launching. But now it seems you're spending more time in Beijing.

Well, we've opened our office there, but I'm on a plane all the time. Last month I was in China, Tokyo, London and L.A. Our international team has an office in L.A., which I'm managing, but my international team here in China is actually bigger. The L.A. team is developing the relationships with the studios and talent, but most of the execution is done here in China.

How do you unwind? Do you have any free time?

I used to watch movies to unwind, but I suppose that's sort of become one of my professional responsibilities as a film executive. But one of my biggest private passions is scuba diving. I like to say that being under the water is the closest you can get to having an outer-space experience on planet Earth. In the ocean you feel so small, and there are so many profound unknowns. You can feel how massive the universe really is. All of the little concerns and worries that entangle us in our daily lives drift away. You can truly focus. So that's where I turn off and let myself go — under water. (Laughs.) I just wish I had more time to do that.

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