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Ivy Zhong has been a step ahead of China’s fast-changing entertainment sector for over a decade. After a stint at Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television, she joined media company Beijing Galloping Horse in 2003, eventually becoming vice chair and diversifying into feature filmmaking and signing top local talent like John Woo. Well before China’s corporate giants began buying Hollywood assets, Zhong orchestrated Galloping Horse’s 2012 takeover of visual effects house Digital Domain for $30.2 million. She earned a producer’s credit on Lionsgate’s Ender’s Game, in which Digital Domain owned a stake, before selling the company for $50 million a year later.
Zhong still holds a seat on Galloping Horse’s board, but in 2014 she co-founded China Broadway Entertainment, which invests in musicals and develops stage shows. Her first Broadway investment, An American in Paris, won four Tonys. CBE is now owned by her new studio Jetavana Entertainment, which targets China’s young adults with distinctive genre films of a quality the market hasn’t generated so far. It partnered with European art house icon Lars von Trier’s Zentropa to produce a Chinese-language fantasy romance set in the fairytale universe of Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen and scripted by hot writer Shu Huan (Lost in Thailand, $208 million worldwide; Lost in Hong Kong, $256 million worldwide). The studio also has finished shooting sci-fi feature Dream Breaker and is developing a slate of sci-fi projects based on the catalog of French graphic novel publisher Humanoids.
Tell us about the Hans Christian Andersen film you are co-producing with Zentropa. How did it come about?
Writer Shu Huan is a very old friend of mine. When he brought this project to me after meeting with Zentropa, I read the synopsis and decided immediately to do it. I agreed to do it for a few reasons: It’s going to be written by one of the best comedy writers in China; it’s based on the fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen, which are well traveled and get a warm reception in China; and it’s a coming-of-age fantasy story about a young Chinese girl, which I believe will have strong appeal with the young audience that dominates China’s film market.
With co-productions it can be difficult to bridge professional and cultural differences. What makes you think you can crack that issue?
It’s true, co-productions are difficult, and so far we haven’t had many successful examples in China. But this film is actually a Chinese love story for the Chinese market. The benefit for Denmark is that we will be highlighting the beauty of the country to the Chinese audience. Danish fashion and brands will also get exposure. Shu Huan’s film Lost in Thailand was set in Chiang Mai and after it became a hit, Chinese tourism there skyrocketed.
I’ve heard that film regulators are interested in getting more European fare into China..
It is indeed the Chinese regulators’ intention to involve more European partners in co-production projects. That doesn’t mean there will be a reduction in the number of co-productions between China and the U.S. — they just want more countries in the mix. I personally feel that the greatest opportunity lies in bringing together the markets and professionals of all three regions — China, America and Europe. That’s what we’re trying to do with our slate. Our other goal is to be like China’s Summit Entertainment — high-concept, high-quality young adult projects.
How is the Chinese film audience evolving?
It’s changing a lot and very quickly. First off, it keeps getting younger. Now the most valuable group are those born after 1995 — so kids around 20 or younger. More and more of them are coming from China’s tier 3 and tier 4 cities, and a larger and larger proportion of them are girls.
What does this demographic want?
In Chinese we say they live two-dimensional lives: in real life, and on the internet — reading online comics, playing games, using social media, chatting constantly. Many of the young girls are crazy about what we call “young fresh meat” (an expression used to describe boy bands and pop idols).
Are you concerned about China’s recent box-office slowdown?
It just comes down to an influx of hot money into the Chinese film market over the past few years. It was too easy to raise money. So we had low-quality local films flying into the market and the audience rejected many of them. Now we are seeing the correction.
China’s quota limiting foreign films to 34 a year is set to expire this year. Do you expect more Hollywood films to be allowed?
From my observations and what I’m hearing from friends, I do think some change will be coming in 2017.
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