AFM: LeVision Pictures CEO Zhang Zhao on Hollywood-China Co-Productions

China is growing in importance as a funding source for indie movies, Zhang tells THR

LeVision Pictures CEO Zhang Zhao is currently collaborating with Legendary East on the $135 million Great Wall, which is being seen as a template both for co-productions between Hollywood and China and a symbol of how China can be a great revenue source for independent studios.

Directed by LeVision artistic director Zhang Yimou, Legendary East CEO Peter Loehr and Zhang are right now casting the movie. Global distribution will take place through Universal Pictures and through China Film Group in China. The screenplay is finished, and they are moving towards production beginning next year. He sat down with The Hollywood Reporter at the American Film Market in Santa Monica to talk Great Wall, putting aside the forums for a while to do some real business and the new John Woo movie.

Read more China's LeVision Sets Up U.S. Unit With $200 Million War Chest

So, tell me about Great Wall?

Great Wall is the biggest project we are working on. We haven't finalized casting yet, but the budget looks like it could be $135 million, and it's [in] English. This is obviously the biggest Chinese movie ever. It's the first-ever official big-budget co-production.

We are always the ones to lead the trend. We put a lot of work into this and took it seriously. It's not just a film; it's a trend. This is a co-production movie. It doesn't come under the quota system [which restricts imported films to 34 on a revenue share basis], and there will be more and more of these. I hope we get more of these. But unofficial co-productions like Expendables are also very important.

Great Wall is important. If Great Wall can have a successful box office around the world, that becomes the model. Hollywood will believe it more. OK, Chinese director and Chinese content, but the crew is from Hollywood. We can make a global movie, in English, and that becomes a template for the cross-cultural issue. Principal photography will be early next year, after the spring festival in February; that's what we've set, but we have to work hard.

What kind of genre does Great Wall belong to? Bit hard to classify.

I don't know if the Olympics opening ceremony can be classified as a genre, but it's true, it's such a sensory experience for the global audience. In terms of viewership, it's bigger than any Hollywood movie ever before. It's very Chinese, but of course the narrative is very Western. The value statement is very Western, so I think we'll be okay. It is a new direction.

We need to figure out new sensory experiences; that's why we have Zhang Yimou here. We need to have a universal narrative that people will understand globally. We need a universal value statement that everyone in every corner of the world can accept, and that's very interesting. Plus, you have the commercial elements, martial arts. I believe when people come out, they will say 'Wow, this is the Great Wall, the real Great Wall from 1,000 years ago.'

Read more Director Zhang Yimou Talks Chinese Box Office, 'Coming Home' and the Upcoming 'Great Wall'

You distributed Expendables 2 in China, where it took $53 million of its $85 million global box office. Quite an achievement considering you didn't get the co-production status you were looking for.

I thank people like Lionsgate and Harvey Weinstein -- because of them, I have a chance to make a successful model in China. For these mini-major and independent movies, China eventually comes to the stage, where it can generate half the box office for the global market.

I hope people understand when they come over here, that it's not about making deals, it's about taking the movie back to China and making it successful. It's about building up trust and friendship. I think people are looking for sales, not for partnership. You need to find the best marketing for China. Stop sending sales people to China, send marketing people to China.

What about all this interest in BAT [Chinese online giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent]. Everyone seems to want to talk to them about funding for projects or selling content, now that they are trying to get into the entertainment industry.

Everyone is talking about money, but it's not about money. BAT is about money, but they are not making a single movie in China yet. I don't bring money, I bring value. Harvey made a lot of money in China because of that. That's what Great Wall is about, it's about partnership and how we work together.

What are you looking for? Money? Sure, they have money. But look at Sony; they bought Columbia. Hollywood, when we come to this point, it's really about partnership, not money. How to create value for each other. Hollywood is still in the stage of content, and saying, 'You should really give me some money.' And of course, I understand, it's getting harder and harder, but they really need to define and make things mutually beneficial. We need to redefine the partnerships. Otherwise, you are going back to when Sony bought Columbia.

What are the other big projects you're working on right now. You've got the John Woo project, The Crossing, right?

The other big project that LeVision is working on is John Woo's The Crossing, which is due to open before the end of the year. The movie will be in two parts in China, and one movie for international release, and it will screen in China in 3D, in Imax and 2D.

For you, Great Wall is the culmination of years of attending the American Film Market.

At every forum, I always say, it's about trust among parties. People know you. And Peter Loehr has been in China for many years. This is the payoff for all those years, and it's not easy.

We are staying away from forums – we've been doing those for two years. Now, it's our time to sort out our business models and offices. It's time for us to stop talking. Now is the time to do real business.