China's CMC Takes Full Ownership of NBCUniversal's Oriental DreamWorks

CMC chairman Li Ruigang - H Getty 2017
Courtesy of Getty Images

The Jeffrey Katzenberg-founded Shanghai animation studio, in which NBCUniversal held a 45 percent stake, will be rebranded as 'Pearl Studio.'

CMC Capital Partners, the Beijing investment group led by Chinese tycoon Li Ruigang, has acquired full ownership of NBCUniversal's joint-venture animation studio Oriental DreamWorks.

The Shanghai-based studio will be rebranded as "Pearl Studio." Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. 

"With full ownership, CMC expands its commitment to build Pearl Studio into one of the world’s leading creators of high-quality animated content for every screen and platform," CMC said. “The animation market could not be stronger right now in China or globally," added Li, one of China's most connected business leaders on both sides of the Pacific. "We believe Pearl Studio is in a very unique and enviable position to be a bold, new independent voice in the animation community.”

NBCUniversal inherited a 45 percent stake in Oriental DreamWorks when it bought Jeffery Katzenberg's DreamWorks Animation (DWA) for $3.8 billion in 2016. One of the first major Hollywood-China tie-ups, the studio was heralded as a landmark collaboration when it was unveiled by Katzenberg at a Shanghai signing ceremony in 2012. 

But Universal's disposal of its stake comes as little surprise to industry watchers. The company was known to be less committed to the mini-studio than Katzenberg had been, since Universal already controls two major U.S. animation studios — Illumination and DWA — and runs other Chinese distribution and consumer products operations (plus the major Universal Studios theme park project it will be launching in Beijing in 2020). 

CMC and Universal reportedly began clashing over strategic vision last year, putting Universal "on course to offload its stake," the Financial Times reported at the time. Warner Bros. was briefly touted as a possible suitor.

Li's CMC is the majority investor in Warner Bros.' Chinese film studio Flagship Entertainment, as well as mega-agency CAA's Beijing-based affiliate, CAA China. The company also holds a stake in Brian Grazer and Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment, as well as a plethora of other media, technology and sports holdings.

“We have tremendous respect for Li Ruigang and CMC, and look forward to many opportunities to work together as they continue to build this business as Pearl Studio,” said Jeff Shell, chairman of Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, in a statement Friday morning. 

Universal and DWA said they would continue to collaborate on Pearl Studio's first worldwide release, Everest, set for the fall of 2019. Universal Pictures will distribute the comedy adventure outside of China, while Pearl will handle the release within the Middle Kingdom. 

Directed by Jill Culton, Everest follows a group of misfits that encounters a young Yeti named Everest and then embarks on an epic quest to reunite the magical creature with his family at the highest point on Earth.

Taking the reins of Pearl will be CEO Frank Zhu and chief creative officer Peilin Chou. The senior leadership team also includes veteran Hollywood computer graphics artist Dagan Potter (Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar) as head of studio.

Oriental DreamWorks, now Pearl, unveiled a five-film development and production slate in September. It included an untitled intergenerational comedy project, conceived and executive produced by Master of None's Alan Yang, and an animated cat comedy written by Jenny Bicks (The Greatest Showman, HBO's Divorce and Sony’s live-action Barbie movie). The company's one major release to date was Kung Fu Panda 3 ($521 million worldwide), which was produced and released as an official U.S.-China co-production with the DreamWorks parent company.

Said Li: "We have a world-class creative and development team and a robust and exciting pipeline of projects we are committed to bringing to screens around the globe."