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This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It was quiet the eclectic group that gathered at Toscana in Brentwood on Oct. 29 at the invitation of Chinese giant Alibaba for what one guest called “a nice, low-key” dinner. Mel Gibson joined TriStar’s Tom Rothman, manager Rick Nicita and his wife, Paula Wagner. CAA agents Spencer Baumgarten and Beijing-based Jonah Greenberg, who runs CAA’s China operations, were there. Imagine’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer stopped by for a drink. (Arnold Schwarzenegger was invited but did not attend.)
By then, Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder, had departed Los Angeles to the disappointment of those who had hoped to meet China’s richest man. But many were happy to be included in any aspect of the company’s tantalizing get-to-know-you tour of Hollywood. Zhang Qiang, CEO of Alibaba Pictures, and Zhang Wei, senior vice president of the Alibaba group, whom sources say is moving to L.A. to open offices, led the remaining delegation.
Some executives are downplaying the visit by Alibaba, which wants to acquire content to stream online and perhaps invest in movies. The prospect of such deals is appealing enough, but some believe the Amazon of China may be headed, eventually, for a far bigger buy: a U.S. studio. While that is speculation at this point, the mere presence of the team — and most of all, of Ma — from a company that raised $21.8 billion in its September IPO was mesmerizing. “There’s always a new person in town, but this is the biggest so far,” says one veteran producer who did not get to meet Ma.
Although Bloomberg had reported that Ma, 50, would meet with an array of studio heads from Disney, Warner Bros., Fox, Sony and Paramount, it didn’t quite work out that way. Alibaba didn’t venture to Disney. Ma and his team met with Sony leaders Michael Lynton, Amy Pascal and Doug Belgrad, as well as Paramount’s Brad Grey and execs from Lionsgate. Warners CEO Kevin Tsujihara got a chance to talk with Ma on the phone. But then Ma left Oct. 29 for a meeting with staff in Northern California before returning to China, and while a spokesperson says his midweek departure was planned, it came as news to several executives and filmmakers who had expected to spend time with him. Execs at Universal, Fox and Relativity had meetings with the Alibaba team after Ma left.
Fox’s chief Jim Gianopulos saw Ma speak at an Oct. 27 Wall Street Journal conference in Laguna Beach, where Ma expressed concern about the youth of his country as the economy grows and said, “Movies are the best way to change young people’s behavior and thinking.” Gianopulos tells THR that Ma came across as “intelligent, insightful and entertaining — like a very bright, accessible guy.”
According to a source who met with the group, executive Zhang Wei seemed interested in “Oscar-caliber films,” while film group chief Zhang Qiang seemed to favor event movies. Asked whether the conversation turned to specific projects, this executive replies: “It was better to talk about themes of movies. On the first date, you don’t have sex.” From a publicity standpoint, at least, perhaps the move of the week was executed by WME’s Ari Emanuel and Patrick Whitesell, photographed with Ma and Alibaba board member Jet Li at a Los Angeles Lakers game. “It was genius,” says a senior studio executive admiringly. WME was tight-lipped about how the agents met Ma, with one source saying only that it was through “a mutual friend.”
With Fosun Group’s $200 million investment in Jeff Robinov‘s Studio 8, Hony Capital putting money into Robert Simonds‘ new company and other Chinese outfits establishing bases in the U.S., Hollywood certainly has the scent of Chinese money in its nostrils.
“There’s no opportunity like China in the world,” Tsujihara said at a THR roundtable recorded Oct. 31. “Alibaba is a great company … and I think all of us are going to look at every opportunity we have.” At the same event, Paramount’s Grey noted Alibaba “sold a huge amount of tickets” for Transformers: Age of Extinction in China, where the film pulled in more than $320 million. Paramount vice chair Rob Moore and Warners executive vp international Richard Fox are taking Chinese language lessons, as is Robinov.
Where Alibaba might ultimately look for partnerships in the U.S. remains to be seen. In July, the company made a deal with Lionsgate for streaming content. More recently, there was speculation that hedge-fund guru Mark Rachesky might sell his 37.4 percent stake in Lionsgate to Alibaba. But one industry figure with connections in China doubts that would interest Ma. “I would guess he’s eventually going to get into Hollywood in a big way,” says this person, adding that when he does, he will “want to own it all — not be a minority investor.”
Alibaba’s planned Los Angeles office would join a growing group of China companies whose outposts are sprinkled among Hollywood players from the 405 to the Valley and Culver City.
1. LeTV, a Beijing video portal and parent of Expendables 3 co-backer Le Vision Pictures, has launched a $200 million fund for movies.
2 China Lion, founded in 2010 by producer Jiang Yanming, releases top Asian films (Breakup Buddies) in North America.
3. Wanda, whose chairman Wang Jianlin is China’s second richest man, bought the prime site in August.
4. The U.S. unit of China’s National Film Capital plans to invest $300 million in 10 English-language films.
5. China Movie Media Group, a spinoff of China Film Group, handled Chinese marketing on Transformers 4.
6. State-owned China Film Group is now run by CEO La Peikang, perhaps the most influential man in China film.
7. DMG Entertainment is a major player in Beijing, co-producing Iron Man 3 and Transcendence.
Nov. 5, 10:56 a.m. Updated with additional details about Ma’s trip.
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