Cannes: LeVision Pictures CEO Zhang Zhao on China's Inexorable Rise (Q&A)

Zhang Zhao - P

Zhang Zhao - P

The film exec sounds off on what China can learn from Hollywood (and vice versa) and why he doesn’t care that "Coming Home" didn’t score a competition slot: "I don’t need Cannes to tell me whether it is good or not."

In a country where making money has become the national obsession, Zhang Zhao, CEO of LeVision Pictures, is passionate about cinema and China’s creative future in a way that is both refreshing and rare.

The film-production wing of Leshi Internet Information and Technology Corp., LeVision hired Zhang to take over the fledgling studio as CEO in 2011. By 2013 the company ranked third in overall box office in China and had hired Zhang Yimou, arguably China’s most high-profile filmmaker, as its artistic director. The two Zhangs (no relation) are in Cannes this year for the out-of-competition Coming Home, a sweeping drama set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. The married ping-pong fanatic, 50, who lives in Beijing, talked to THR about LeVision’s rapid rise at the Chinese box office and the strategic advantage China has that Hollywood never will match (hint: 1.3 billion people).

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LeVision has undergone a rapid transformation over the past three years. How did that happen?

Already last year, our company came in third for the year at the box office. This year, I believe we will rank even higher. That is why we announced in April that we are no longer going to pursue market share, we are going to transform into an Internet company. And we’re going to call ourselves an Internet company and not a movie studio. What we do is facilitate the crossover between moviegoers and Internet users. Turn all the moviegoers into Internet video viewers — that’s what we are going to pursue for the next three or five years. But we have to keep making good movies. If we can successfully turn ourselves into an Internet company, we also will start a merchandising business. So, that’s a big journey for the Chinese movie industry.

How did you get into the film business?

I studied Information Technology at Fudan University in the early 1980s, in Shanghai, my hometown. I was heavily involved in campus drama. At that time there was a strong sense of momentum about China opening to the world, academically, socially or consciously. We had a chance to learn a lot about Renaissance art in Europe, a lot of Western ideas and philosophy. That was very important. It heavily influenced me and a lot of young people.

After I graduated, I went to graduate school at Fudan to study philosophy. My parents were high-ranking naval officers — my father was a technician on a nuclear submarine. They thought I should study computer science or something, but my interest has always been in art, philosophy and humanities. Unfortunately, it ended in 1989 [with the student-led pro-democracy demonstrations]. That was a very interesting time! I had to leave the country.

I went to New York to study philosophy at CUNY in 1989 and then went to film school at NYU. I came back to China in 1996. I got a call from the China Film Bureau. I made a few short movies and got some awards. They called me and said they wanted to have new directors from overseas for movies and TV series. They asked if I wanted to come back and talk. So I flew back.

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How do you decide whether or not to give a film a green light?

The most important thing to me is not about what kind of movie we are making. It’s about how we can transform a traditional film business model into one that fits into the Internet era. Once you make that transformation, you are able to make more movies like Coming Home, Old Boys or Tiny Times. You can support all these movies, which are kind of revolutionary. Not popcorn movies or Hollywood movies. The best thing I can do is produce more interesting movies and still make money.

Do you think Hollywood understands the changes underway in the Chinese?industry?

They are getting it. Hollywood is obviously very advanced in terms of production, technology, and storytelling. But China has the biggest crowd. The Chinese audience is paying a lot of attention to movies made without great storytelling, without great filmmakers, without big budgets, and without advanced technology — but they’re still achieving big box office. The Internet is supporting smaller movies, art movies or co-productions. It is very important to have this diversity of moviemaking. That’s why we are trying to make movies that aren’t just copies of blockbusters. For a healthy industry, you need to have variety. We need to learn not only from Hollywood, but also from European filmmakers. If you go to Cannes, you see a lot of great movies. We need this diversity to have a healthy ecology in the?industry.

How do you feel about Cannes giving Coming Home a special screening, instead of putting it in the competition?

It doesn’t make any difference. I don’t think a movie’s quality should be judged on whether you get into the competition or not. I am not worried. The film is already finished. I don’t need Cannes to tell me whether it is good or not.

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How is China facing up to the competition from overseas?

It’s not easy. If we’re talking about the domestic industry, I really don’t think we should focus on Hollywood versus China. We should focus on how we are going to provide better product to the?customer.

Do you think China soon will play a bigger role in Hollywood?

It obviously will. I don’t believe that Hollywood belongs to the United States. It belongs to the world. You always see money coming from Japan, Europe or China. Capital is a global treasure. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. In Hollywood, they have made so much progress in terms of content by integrating talent from all over the world. But when it comes to future business models, I think China has the chance to contribute something interesting too.