China's Film Carnival: 5 Things to Know About Dick Cook's $500M Financier

Dick Cook GETTY - H 2016
Getty Images

Meet the deep-pocketed Hangzhou-based company bankrolling the former Disney Pictures chairman's new film and TV venture.

Dick Cook Studios, the upstart production company founded by former Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook, got a financial boost to the tune of $500 million from China's Film Carnival earlier this week.

Under the terms of the deal, which was announced on Tuesday, Film Carnival will finance 100 percent of Cook's movie projects, with an option to give "other Chinese investors [an] opportunity to invest in Dick Cook Studios motion pictures on an individual basis," the companies said in a statement.

The first film to be produced under the fund is an adaptation of Australian author John Flanagan's best-selling book series Ranger's Apprentice, which will be directed by Oscar-winner Paul Haggis from a screenplay written by Haggis and his daughter, Alissa Sullivan Haggis.

The agreement deepens Cook's ties with Chinese money. He launched Dick Cook Studios in 2015 with a $150 million investment from CITIC Guoan Group Co. Ltd., a division of the state-owned Chinese conglomerate CITIC Group.

The landmark deal is the latest in a barrage of eye-popping Chinese cash injections into Hollywood film slates and production outfits. It follows Chinese real estate and investment conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group's $3.5 billion acquisition of Thomas Tull's Legendary Entertainment, Beijing-based Perfect World Pictures's $250 million investment into Universal's slate and Bona Film Group's $235 million investment into six tentpoles from 20th Century Fox, among others.

Cook is a true Hollywood veteran. He spent four decades at Disney, rising up through the ranks to serve as chairman from 2002 to 2009, overseeing the release of films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure and Finding Nemo

Film Carnival is far less known to Hollywood — even in China, many high-level industry players have told THR they are unfamiliar with the company.

Here are five things to know about Cook's new half-billion-dollar backers.

1. The Lou brothers are in charge

Based in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province, Film Carnival is headed by two brothers: Lou Xiaolou is the company's chairman, while his younger brother, Lou Xiaodong, serves as president. Both are coming to the film business from financial backgrounds. The elder Lou began his career as a trader in the Shanghai Futures Exchange in the 1990s, and later served as a director at Hong Kong Lianfa Securities. He is said to be enamored with the film business. Film Carnival partnered with DCS and CITIC Guoan on the inaugural China-U.S. Motion Picture Summit held near Beijing last Friday. The one-day event featured panel discussions designed to encourage deeper ties between the world's two largest film industries. At one of the event's gatherings, Lou was overheard telling Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuaron, a keynote speaker at the event, that he loved Cuaron's work and would be willing to finance his next film "for any price."

2. Film Carnival is also known as ...

The company is also occasionally referred to as JSNH, which are the initials for its corporate name in Chinese — ???? — which reads Jia Shi Nian Hua, literally meaning "the Golden Times of Fine Viewing/Entertainment."

3. They are producing a diverse trio of Chinese-language films

Film Carnival has yet to release a film of its own. According to official documents, the company was established in 2006 with registered capital of 200 million Chinese yuan (about $31 million at today's exchange rates), but it remained relatively silent until 2015, when it signed agreements to finance and produce a film each from veteran Hong Kong commercial directors Jeffrey Lau (A Chinese Odyssey (as director) and Kung Fu Hustle (as producer)) and Tony Ching (The Sorcerer and the White Snake), as well as the big-budget Chinese-language debut of South Korean art house star Kim Ki Duk. The Kim project caught both the Korean and Chinese industries by surprise, given that the auteur is know for producing risque art house pictures that occasionally run into censorship trouble even in Korea, where the regulatory regime takes a much lighter hand than in China (His Venice Golden Lion winner, for example, featured several characteristic scenes of sexual violence). Titled Who Is God, and produced from a budget of $23.6 million (150 million yuan), the film is said to be about a fictional kingdom's wars with five foreign tribes set against a Buddhist backdrop. When the film was announced at the Busan Film Festival last October, Kim said it will be about "how politics manipulates religion" — two very taboo topics with China's censors.

"A general phenomenon for art house movies is that most of them struggle to survive. We strive to provide for more space for them to develop," Lou Xiaodong said in Busan, according to the state-backed China Daily.

Jeffrey Lau's project for Film Carnival is rather more conventional. Titled Ne Zha, the movie is a fantasy action movie based on the legendary figure from Chinese mythology who fights evil dragons to protect the people of the Middle Kingdom. It is targeting a February 2017 release during the Chinese New Year. 

4. The cash comes from private equity funds under the Lous' management

For each of the films it has announced, Film Carnival has set up private equity funds managed by securities company Huafeng Investment Consultancy, where the elder Lou also serves as president. THR was not able to ascertain the source of Huafeng's financing and has reached out to the company for comment.

5. The company is also investing in boutique entertainment complexes and ... tea houses

Together with CITIC Guoan, Film Carnival has said it plans to build a new type of comprehensive pan-entertainment centers called "film culture experience entertainment centers," which will house different up-market entertainment facilities including movie theaters, cultural centers, VR technology centers, gyms and hotels. The company hopes to establish the centers in China's first-tier cities of Hangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Lou Xiaolou also appears to be an avid tea drinker. In August 2015, Film Carnival launched Xiaolou Tea House, a tea-shop business named after the chairman.