Meet Alibaba's Woman of Mystery in Los Angeles
Zhang Wei, a Harvard MBA and former talk-show host (she's interested in "Megan Ellison-type" films, says an insider) seems poised to head the China power's push into Hollywood
This story first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
She wanted to be the Oprah Winfrey of China. Instead, sources say American-educated Zhang Wei is relocating from Shanghai to Los Angeles to head an office for e-commerce giant Alibaba as it makes a much-watched incursion into Hollywood.
In October, Alibaba founder and chairman Jack Ma described his firm — the Amazon of China, only with more money after its IPO raised $25 billion — as "the world's biggest entertainment company." He is known to be interested in purchasing American content to stream and possibly investing in American movies. But some observers believe his ambitions also include buying a stake in a U.S. studio or even acquiring one outright.
If that's the case, Zhang, who carved out a career as a top talk show host in China before focusing on her career as an executive, appears set to be a vital part of Alibaba's plans. The company declined to respond to questions about Zhang or her L.A. move, and those who have worked with her declined to speak on the record for fear of angering the Chinese giant.
But sources paint a portrait of Zhang as a seasoned and savvy executive. She has worked at Alibaba in various capacities since 2008, serving before that as COO in charge of TV power Star's operations in China. Though she's only in her early 40s, her résumé includes stints as managing director of CNBC China, a consultant to Bain & Co. and finance specialist for General Electric Co.
For a time after getting her MBA at Harvard in 1999, Zhang lived her dream, working at Star (then owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.) as host of Common Ground, a talk show on Beijing TV. With the slogan, "Building a bridge between China and the world," Zhang took on topics that were considered daring, including AIDS and drug abuse. In a segment on Internet dating, an American man proposed to a Chinese woman he'd met online.
At Harvard, Zhang was one of a dozen students from China who had left the country after the 1989 crackdown on dissidents, described in a Newsweek profile in 2000 as part of an influential "Tiananmen Generation" who had received American educations and were debating whether to accept lucrative offers from U.S. companies or return to help build the Chinese economy. Classmates included The Lego Movie producer Dan Lin as well as Media Rights Capital co-chairmen Modi Wiczyk and Asif Satchu. Then described as "a buoyant 29-year-old woman whose dream was to become China's answer to … Oprah Winfrey," Zhang urged her classmates to return to help their country.
Fifteen years later, she has come full circle as a part of the Alibaba team that met at the end of October with top Hollywood executives in what was described as a "getting to know you" visit. While it's unclear what specific plans Alibaba has for entertainment, the company formed Alibaba Pictures in March when it bought a majority stake in Hong Kong-based ChinaVision Media Group, which produces Chinese-language TV shows and movies. The company is headed by Zhang Qiang, a former senior executive in the state-run China Film Group.
Zhang Wei graduated from Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Pa., with a bachelor's degree in international organizational management before getting her MBA from Harvard. She was described in her talk show era as a stylish dresser who enjoyed a hazelnut coffee from Starbucks. She hung a poster of her favorite television show, Friends, on the wall in her office. The talk show's producers were taking a risk working with her, she said then, because, "I've gotten a lot of my values from abroad." When they complained about her casual look and asked her to dress in a gray suit, she pleaded, "Please let me be me!"
In a 2010 appearance at Alifest, an annual conference organized by Ma in the company's hometown of Hangzhou, Zhang hosted key sessions at the event attended by then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, eBay CEO John Donahoe and former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman.
Although her days as a TV host are over, Zhang still appears to be living by the show's motto, building bridges between China and the world. A top U.S. film executive who met with her in L.A. says she came across as interested in "Megan Ellison-type fare," alluding to the highbrow producer of films including Zero Dark Thirty, American Hustle and Foxcatcher.
One Chinese colleague who requested anonymity expressed confidence that Zhang is more than prepared for her U.S. foray. "Wei is a witty, capable woman," says this person. "She can freely shuttle between various roles and change, be that TV star or executive of a large multinational company."
ALIBABA BY THE NUMBERS
$25 billion: Amount raised in Alibaba's September IPO. (It has about $16 billion in cash for investments.)
54 percent: Jump in Alibaba's revenue, to $2.74 billion, in the second quarter of its fiscal year.
300 million: Chinese users of Alipay, the company's Paypal-like e-commerce system.
$1.2 billion: Price Alibaba and Jack Ma's Yunfeng Capital paid in April for a stake in the Chinese web video company Youku Tudou.
$1 billion: Cost of Alibaba's April deal for a 20 percent stake in Internet TV company Wasu.