Bona Film’s Yu Dong on Partnering With Hollywood: “For Chinese Companies, Credibility is Key”

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The Chinese studio head, who recently announced a $235 million investment in 20th Century Fox’s slate, spoke at the 6th Annual U.S.-China Film Summit on Thursday.

With Chinese money continuing to fly fast and furious into Hollywood, the future of transpacific co-productions was at top of mind at the Asia Society’s 6th Annual U.S.-China Film Summit, held Thursday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles.

The relationship between the two sides is now mature enough to sustain long-term partnerships, a strategy advocated by several panelists. That’s what Bona Film Group has done with its $235 million investment in 20th Century Fox’s upcoming slate of live-action tentpoles.

The deal, announced at an AFM party the night before, was struck in under three months, said Bona CEO Yu Dong, who added that Bona’s knowledge of American systems and laws – it was the first Chinese movie company to be traded on NASDAQ – expedited the process. “For Chinese companies, having credibility is key,” he said. “Bona is able to make deals in Hollywood because it understands the rules of the game.”

Yu told The Hollywood Reporter after his panel that Fox was very careful in selecting a Chinese partner. “The richest companies are [Alibaba] and Tencent, and there are financiers and banks with more money than Bona,” he said. “But we specialize as a film company. You don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining why you want to make a film, because we understand story. We’re in the same business.”

Also doubling down on Hollywood is China’s Dalian Wanda – owners of AMC Theaters – which is building both a $1.2 billion U.S. headquarters in Beverly Hills as well as the world’s largest studio complex, set to open in April 2017 in the port city of Qingdao. In a further sign of the real estate conglomerate’s seriousness about the film business, this week the company merged its movie assets into a new group, Wanda Film Holdings. “Wanda will be based in China, settled in the U.S. and facing the world. We will bridge the gap from West to East,” said the unit’s head, Jack Gao, who hinted that direct flights from Los Angeles to Qingdao may soon serve as a more literal bridge.

Both Yu and Gao spoke of the desire for a “true” co-production, one in which creative development is shared as much as the financial aspect. “From an investment standpoint, making Chinese movies or English-language movies is pretty easy,” Yu told THR. “But because the two cultures are so different, it’s very difficult to find a story that both markets can accept.” That elusive intellectual property – one that works in both East and West – has become the ultimate holy grail for U.S.-China film principals, but Yu is optimistic that co-productions will eventually lead in that direction.

Elsewhere at the summit, Asia Society executive vice president Tom Nagorski led a keynote conversation with IMAX Entertainment CEO Greg Foster. IMAX China mounted a successful IPO on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange last month, raising $248 million that will be spent on nearly doubling its number of screens in China, from its current 251. As IMAX expands into China’s third- and fourth-tier cities (which still contain more than a million people each), Foster noted that creating a moviegoing culture from scratch poses challenges but also advantages: “Moviegoers in the U.S. grew up going to IMAX in museums. That didn’t happen in China, and that made it easier for us,” he said. “There are eight year olds whose first moviegoing experience is a 3D IMAX movie at the multiplex. That’s becoming innate to Chinese moviegoers."

Foster isn’t concerned about another major Chinese media consumption trend: viewing movies and television shows on mobile devices. “When someone chooses to watch a movie on their phone, that’s competing with playing a game or talking on the phone,” he said. “Going to the movie theater is a completely different cognitive experience. I don’t envision that big tentpole blockbusters will be seen anywhere except in theaters. It’s always been a communal experience.”

And the Chinese will continue going to the movies, predicted Rance Pow, president of Asian cinema industry consulting firm Artisan Gateway. While China’s box office growth was largely driven by increased theater construction over much of the past decade, an Artisan Gateway study found that box office and theater admissions growth began outpacing that of screen growth in 2013, while average ticket prices have remained stable over that time. “This suggests that the frequency of moviegoing in China is increasing,” Pow declared. “It’s a very bullish sign.”

 

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