Meet the men (and, yes, they're all men) whose decisions drive the entertainment economy — film to music to digital — and who can teach Hollywood a thing or two about how to drive growth.
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
As other globally ambitious Chinese companies were beating a retreat from the world stage over the past year, Ma's Shenzhen-based Tencent Holdings has roared ahead. The evidence: In November, not only did the Chinese tech giant become the first Asian company to exceed $500 billion in market value — it also surpassed the market capitalization of Facebook.
Ma's personal net worth soared 60 percent in the past year, placing him at No. 2 on Forbes' China rich list with $39 billion, behind only insurgent real estate tycoon Hui Ka Yan ($42.5 billion, up from just $9.8 billion last year). A soft-spoken computer scientist by training, Ma, 46, founded Tencent in 1998 and created China's first mega-popular messaging service, QQ. The firm has since grown to become the world's biggest online gaming company, a social media and original content powerhouse, as well as the operator of WeChat, the multifunctional messaging app and mobile payments service used by nearly every internet-connected person in China (just shy of 1 billion, according to recent estimates).
In recent years, the trifecta of Chinese internet giants known as BAT — search giant Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent — each announced that entertainment content would become a core component of their company's offerings, but Tencent (which also has a content partnership with THR) by far has been the most successful and consistent at growing in-house entertainment operations and integrating them within its broader suite of online services. Tencent Video is vying head-to-head with iQiyi for the title as China's leading online video platform; Tencent Music Entertainment claims a 75 percent share of China's digital music market; and Tencent Pictures has a 43-title film and TV slate going into production in 2018, including a hotly anticipated Chinese zombie movie co-produced with Channing Tatum's Free Association.
Ma also has become an aggressive but characteristically discreet investor in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, choosing to take strategic minority stakes rather than executing big-ticket acquisitions. Holdings include sizable stakes in Tesla, Snap, Bob Simonds' STX Entertainment, startup Beverly Hills-based studio Tang Media Partners, WME-IMG China and much more.
By any account, Wang, 63, had a tough year for a billionaire. His real estate and entertainment conglomerate was perhaps the hardest hit by the Chinese government's crackdown on overseas investment, spurring a sale of the group's theme park and hotel holdings, which in turn put a dent in the tycoon's personal net worth to the tune of $8 billion (He is now China's fourth-richest individual, down from No. 1 last year). But Wanda's entertainment portfolio remains enormous: The group controls China's, North America's and Europe's largest movie theater circuits — including AMC — as well as China's largest film production facility. And Legendary Entertainment, long seen as something of a blemish, is plowing ahead with a more promising slate, including a Pacific Rim sequel and a stake in Universal's sure-to-be-huge Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Back home, Wanda's growing local studio continues to hum along, with some 27 films underway. So, in short: Don't count "the Chairman" out just yet.
Business is booming for China's most charismatic tycoon. Ma's Hangzhou-based Alibaba Group generated an astonishing $25.3 billion in e-commerce sales in just one day during the company’s annual Singles Day shopping extravaganza on Nov. 11. Revenue for the group also soared 61 percent in the latest quarter. But after its 2016 landmark minority investment in Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, Ma’s still-fledgling film studio, Alibaba Pictures Group, remains somewhat adrift, with the business unit short on breakout hits and its leadership ranks in a near-constant state of churn. Not unlike Amazon’s Jeff Bezos though, Ma, 53, whose net worth is $38.6 billion, continues to see entertainment as an essential sweetener to Alibaba’s core e-commerce offerings — a fact that was nowhere more apparent than at the company’s Singles Day live gala show, where Nicole Kidman greeted Ma onstage, with Pharrell Williams performing alongside local pop star Kris Wu.
A consummate cross-border dealmaker, Li, 48, remains China's de facto gatekeeper for any Hollywood heavy looking to set up shop in the nation's surging domestic media marketplace. Leveraging his deep government connections and storied market savvy on both sides of the Pacific, in years past, Li has gone about getting his Shanghai-based venture capital firm a sizable or controlling piece of everything from Imax China to Oriental DreamWorks and Warner Bros.' Chinese film studio Flagship Entertainment. And while others were beating a retreat from cross-border dealmaking, Li added to his expansive portfolio by making a minority investment in Hollywood power agency CAA, while also establishing the Beijing joint venture CAA China (he also joined CAA's board of directors as part of the deal). "China's media and entertainment market is still in rapid growth," Li tells THR. "CMC hopes to become a leading global company, with unique strengths and a comprehensive spectrum of interests in content, platforms, services and technology." Indeed, CMC's portfolio spans China's Lego park, European soccer clubs, Silicon Valley virtual reality startups, Asian broadcasters TVB and Star China, and Brian Grazer and Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment, among others. When the force-of-nature executive isn't in an airplane, he divides his time between homes in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, while also keeping up a rigorous regimen of distance running and cycling.
Beijing's state-backed distributor China Film Group is enjoying a decidedly robust 2017. Together with its fellow state distributor Huaxia, CFG holds a duopoly on the import of all international films into China — a role that gives La a hand in picking and choosing each Hollywood studio title that gets a coveted release slot under the country's quota. CFG also has been on a winning streak as a film investor/co-producer thanks to stakes in the biggest performers at the local box office this year: home-grown Wolf Warrior 2 ($854 million) and Universal's The Fate of the Furious ($392 million).
Gong's entertainment business sway is easy to summarize: He's the founder and CEO of the most popular streaming video service in the world's most populous nation. Crucially, it's also a market that Netflix and Amazon have been unable to penetrate. To put a finer point on it: As of September, the iQiyi app had been installed on 541 million mobile devices, with users spending a combined 6.1 billion hours on the service in just one month alone. Beijing-based iQiyi has been able to hold a slight edge in subscriber numbers over chief rival Tencent Video and a growing lead over Alibaba's lagging Youku Tudou. And all this despite the fact that its parent company, Baidu, having less than a fifth of the market cap of its fellow Chinese tech giants and a far weaker ecosystem of integrated internet services. Much of iQiyi's success, then, comes down to the vision and stewardship of Gong, 49, who founded the service in 2010. Much like Netflix, iQiyi, which is privately held, is doubling down on its original content, with more than 200 new original series planned for 2018. And that could be just the beginning: iQiyi is tipped to be pursuing an initial public offering in the U.S., with the target valuation said to be pegged at $10 billion.
Is it accurate to call iQiyi the "Netflix of China"?
I don't think it's an accurate comparison, actually. I understand why people make the comparison — iQiyi is the first subscription-based streaming video company with a large subscriber base. But I describe our business model as "an online Disney." Like Netflix, some of our revenue comes from subscriptions, but we also have ad-supported content. We're not building theme parks in the real world like Disney, but we have online games that are developed from our original films and television series.
What share of your business does each piece constitute?
From the structure of our revenue this year, 40 percent will come from advertising; 33 percent from membership; and gaming, e-commerce and the rest make up the remaining 20-plus percent.
Can you share how much you plan to invest in original content?
iQiyi is not a publicly listed company, so some financial details can't be disclosed. What I can say is that the cost for original programming is still a small part of our budget. But the growth rate of our original programming spending is much higher than the budget for licensed content.
Will iQiyi ever go head-to-head with Netflix and Amazon in China?
Foreign companies cannot run a media business within China. But let's say if they do get in, I think the culture gap would pose a big problem. Any successful streaming company must have a solid base of great domestic content. They would have a lot of catching up to do.
After more than five decades in show business, Chan, 63, continues to do it all. In January, Chan, who divides his time between Beijing and Hong Kong, dominated the Chinese New Year box-office race, with his latest action-comedy vehicle Kung Fu Yoga earning $255 million. And that was after he won an honorary Oscar — "I broke so many bones, finally this is mine," he said in his acceptance speech (after being honored by Tom Hanks). In the fall, he reminded film fans of his oft-overlooked range, carrying STX Entertainment's R-rated thriller The Foreigner to $135 million. And, of course, Chan's energy remains unabated: In recent months, he has announced his determination to win a best actor Oscar for a dramatic role — and even wants to try a musical. “After 57 years in the film industry, I’m not filming for the money,” Chan tells THR. “I would like to try different roles, direct projects apart from action-comedy. That’s why I’m working on the script of a drama now. It also might be fun if I could do something like Sound of Music, Mamma Mia or La La Land.”
A dinosaur film exec by the standards of China's fast-changing film landscape, Wang launched Huayi Brothers with his older brother Wang Zhongjun way back in 1994. Much has changed since then — particularly the entry of China's biggest conglomerates and tech giants into the film sphere that Huayi once comfortably dominated. But having recently settled into a new corporate headquarters in downtown Beijing — decorated with a portion of the elder Wang's vast Chinese contemporary art collection, they are by far the swankiest offices of any Chinese film studio — the junior Wang is charting a course for international growth. Central to that vision is a major L.A.-based joint venture with the Russo brothers, in which Huayi Brothers invested $250 million for a 60 percent stake last year. The company is also two-thirds of the way through an 18-picture slate financing pact with STX Entertainment. Says Wang: "Huayi Brothers will continue to seek international collaborations, producing competitive films for the global audience — and in the process, we will let the world hear China, and understand China through the global language of film."
Yu, 46, was the first Chinese studio head to bring his company public in the U.S., listing on the Nasdaq in 2010. But in 2015, he made the decision to take Beijing-based Bona private with the goal of relisting back home in China, where valuations are far higher. After a long regulatory slog, that process is finally wrapping up: The company is set to raise $212 million in a Chinese IPO in the coming months. That will provide Yu with fresh capital to follow up on other recent international growth initiatives, such as a $150 million joint film fund launched with CAA in May. The first release from that venture will be Roland Emmerich’s World War II epic Midway. “For the betterment of international Chinese cinema, Bona is open to all win-win business offers from potential overseas partners,” Yu tells THR.
Hong Kong and Beijing-based Edko may not be the biggest studio in Chinese entertainment, but as a hands-on producer of critically acclaimed and commercially successful films, Kong is virtually without peer. He won an Oscar as a producer of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, back in 2000; he followed it up with a series of landmarks in Chinese filmmaking, such as Zhang Yimou's Hero, Lee's Lust Caution and Stephen Chow's Journey to the West. Edko is now gearing up to release Monster Hunt 2, the follow up to DreamWorks Animation veteran Raman Hui's box-office record-breaker from 2015 ($383 million). The film is expected to be a huge player at the Chinese New Year box office in 2018. "At Edko, we aren't interested in becoming a major entertainment conglomerate, because you lose your flexibility and ability to take risks when you're a publicly listed company, with responsibilities to shareholders," Kong, 64, tells THR. "We are filmmakers here, and we want only to make the films we are passionate about — we value that creative freedom above everything." Takeaway: the Chinese film industry could use a few more Bill Kongs.