CAA China's Leader on Censorship, Why the Country Needs a Global Hit and Translating for Steven Spielberg

THR Jonah Greenberg - H 2015
Fang Yifei

THR Jonah Greenberg - H 2015

Jonah Greenberg, managing director at the first Hollywood agency in China, now celebrating 10 years, sees himself as an American "emissary" to the local industry.

This story first appeared in the June 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

This summer, CAA marks 10 years of having an active office in Beijing and becoming the first U.S. talent agency with full-time representation in China. Leading the charge is Jonah Greenberg, 39, who has carved out a key role for the agency within China's booming entertainment industry. The married Greenberg, who lives in Beijing's scenic Chaoyang Park area, shepherds the careers of such Chinese A-listers as Zhang Yimou, the first mainland director to helm a U.S. studio film with The Great Wall, now shooting with Matt Damon. Fluent in Mandarin thanks to a Chinese literature degree from Reed College, Greenberg has overseen the Beijing office since 2012, when Peter Loehr, with whom Greenberg worked at Beijing-based Ming Productions before joining CAA, left the agency to lead Legendary Pictures' Asia unit, Legendary East. Greenberg -- whose grandfather, Oscar-winning writer Waldo Salt (Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home), was blacklisted for belonging to the American Communist Party -- oversees a staff of 20 in the city's trendy Sanlitun area and sees himself as an American "emissary" to the local industry and an advocate for China in the U.S.

For Greenberg, 1987’s 'The Last Emperor' represents a Chinese story “with global resonance.” “It’s also a Polish movie poster, and I love them because they all had to be hand-painted.

What role do you play in getting CAA's Hollywood clients into Chinese movies?

There is a constant flow of information between my colleagues in the U.S. and the team in Beijing, so the group collectively identifies opportunities for clients. Bruce Willis (The Bombing), Johnny Knoxville (Skiptrace), Willem Dafoe and Tony Gilroy (The Great Wall) and Keanu Reeves (Man of Tai Chi) are just a few recent examples.

What are the main differences between working as an agent in China and elsewhere?

In China, it's even more about relationships than in the U.S. Whether it's taking people cycling around the Great Wall, attending weddings -- it's important to spend time with people for things to work.

CAA was in China before many in Hollywood recognized that country's importance. At what point did you realize your plan was working?

In 2009, we represented five of the seven Chinese filmmakers whose films crossed the 100 million yuan (now $16.1 million) benchmark at the box office that year: Ning Hao, Gao Qunshu, Eva Jin, John Woo and Lu Chuan.

Calligraphy by director Chen Kaige of Greenberg’s Chinese name, Qiao Qingshan.

To what extent has censorship or government interference been a problem for you?

For various reasons, some films have taken longer to get through the censorship process. But in the end, everything tends to work out.

What are the biggest challenges facing growth?

When the industry is growing at 30 percent a year and more, it's not that challenged, is it? One thing I'd like to see happen: if Chinese films could be successful outside China for reasons other than being about kung fu.

What has been your best moment as an agent?

Translating at a meeting for two CAA clients: Steven Spielberg and Zhang Yimou. Not only because they are both master filmmakers, but because that moment signaled to me all that is possible if we focus on bringing the best talent together from seemingly different cultural traditions: Western and Chinese.

An autographed poster for 'No Man’s Land,' a Ning Hao thriller packaged by CAA.