DMG's Dan Mintz on How to Work With China, Remaking 'Point Break' and Johnny Depp's Next Film (Q&A)
The CEO of the Beijing-based entertainment company talks to THR about government restrictions, the rise of local movies and the biggest change in the last 20 years: "China sells itself now."
This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Beijing-based DMG Entertainment burst on to the global film scene nearly five years ago, curiosity and even intrigue surrounded the company's CEO, Dan Mintz. Who was this fast-talking New Yorker who somehow had built a media empire within China's notoriously restricted economy? Under Mintz, 50, DMG worked with Endgame to co-produce the 2012 indie hit Looper and partnered with Disney and Marvel on May's Iron Man 3, which grossed $121.2 million in China. Next, DMG will team with Alcon Entertainment on the Johnny Depp sci-fi epic Transcendence and the recently announced $100 million reboot of Point Break. Mintz's many ties to local industry players and key government figures -- including a public friendship with Han Sanping, chairman of the state-backed China Film Group, which maintains a tight grip on domestic film distribution -- have made him perhaps the most important Hollywood figure in China.
Mintz first landed in Beijing in 1989 to scout a TV commercial and says he felt an immediate connection to the way the country straddles its ancient past and modern development. "I realized that if I stayed here for five years, I would probably see 30 years of growth and change," he says. In 1993, Mintz founded DMG -- short for Dynamic Media Group -- with Wu Bing, a former national gymnastics champion, and analyst Peter Xiao to capitalize on the country's boom in advertising. After 10 years of producing commercials for such clients as Nike and Volkswagen, DMG moved into film financing, distribution and even exhibition, having opened nine theaters in China with plans for more.
Mintz, who is fluent in Mandarin, says DMG is now China's largest private media company, with 850 employees in 10 offices on two continents. The self-described "busy single guy on the go" keeps homes in Beijing, Shanghai, New York and Los Angeles and says he doesn't book meetings more than a couple of weeks in advance because he has no idea where he will be. He met with THR in his Beijing office to talk about what Hollywood can do to crack the Chinese market.
What has been the biggest change in how Hollywood deals with China during the 20 years you've been here?
In the early years, sometimes I would come back to L.A. and say: "Hey, this is a fast-growing market. We've got amazing locations. If you want to come to China and shoot, we can help you out." And people would look at me like I was insane. They'd say, "Don't they arrest people there, and doesn't everyone ride bikes?" It's hard enough in this industry selling yourself; I felt like I had to sell them the whole country. Well, China sells itself now.
DMG began in TV commercials and marketing then moved into film. How did you make the transition?
Two triggers -- one political, one economic. The political trigger was the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was China's big coming-out party to the world, and as far as the government was concerned, there were two times: before the Olympics and after the Olympics. It was that important. They weren't going to start the culture-industry push until that went off well. The other trigger was economic. Looking at the land mass and population, we judged that China really needed about 5,000 screens before it became a viable film market. There were three factors we waited for: access to screens, relevant content that people wanted to see and the third thing -- which was really key from our consumer research -- the social habit among ordinary Chinese people of going to the movies. Once that happened, we knew the market would really take off.
Your first film, 2009's The Founding of a Republic, was commissioned by the government to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. How did you land that project?
It was our first feature, but we were already very tapped in to the local market. We were shooting so many TV commercials; our crews were shooting 200 days a year. And we were shooting the biggest, most expensive spots for major brands: Volkswagen, the NBA and others. Combined, they were much more expensive than the feature films being made at that time. The consumer insights we had built up over the years were pretty impressive and especially useful for a government. Every government is out of touch, right? That's just standard.
What did you learn from that experience about working with the Chinese government?
For effective U.S.-China collaborations, everyone needs to understand one another's agendas -- to build trust and deliver value for both sides. A lot of people in Hollywood are very focused on ticking the bare-minimum number of boxes to get into the China market, but what you need to understand is that all of the specific requirements that are set up for co-productions, for example, are there because someone on top said: "We want to be part of these films. We don't want to just be a location and a place for them to come to project their own culture." They want Chinese culture to spread around the world so that they are known and have influence. So we look at the problem from the macro level to figure out what we need to do so that all our partners -- U.S. and Chinese -- feel like their needs are being met. If you can genuinely solve that macro-level policy problem, your other problems go away. Hollywood often seems to be looking for the loophole or the shortcut, but there are no loopholes here. Say you get one movie in, and maybe it meets the bare-minimum requirements somehow or you worked some sneaky one-off deal, but it obviously didn't fulfill the spirit of what they were looking for -- and there are lots of past examples of this. Well, maybe you'll make some quick money, but next time they will crush you.
How can studios improve their relationships in China?
The first thing I would do is set up a core team that handles China, rather than this many-layers-removed, satellite-office scenario. Another thing is to be rigorous in selecting your partners. When you look at people's track records and what they've achieved, you need to be able to see that they follow international best practices, have accountability and know the regulatory environment in both markets. It can't just be, "This guy's got special connections," because maybe he won't next time.
Would the U.S. government applying more pressure on behalf of the film industry help?
Lobbying has its place, but it's not going to solve all your problems -- certainly not in the short term. When China opened the market up to 34 Hollywood imports in 2012, everyone thought everything was all good. But then there were the scheduling issues -- movies opening against each other or opening late -- and people had trouble getting paid. For some films, the studios are in an even worse position now.
Did Iron Man 3 showcase China as much as you would have liked?
I think it was an amazing first step. Just to get it to that point -- figuring out what would add value from a story perspective -- was quite a journey. Nobody is going to make a movie and throw some Chinese elements in it just to appease a market; that's not going to work on any kind of long-term basis. But the fact that there are some Chinese elements in there at all, in the Marvel universe, is an amazing first step.
What will DMG bring to Transcendence and Point Break? Will there be Chinese elements?
There's a line in Looper where Joseph Gordon-Levitt is deciding what city to restart his life in, and Jeff Daniels' character, who's from the future, tells him, "Trust me: Go to China." That's actually the line during testing that got the biggest laughs. It's not that another country wouldn't have worked; it's just that China worked better. And that's the kind of thing we're looking for -- where it's not forced, it just works better because there's a little added value there. These are the elements we're interested in, not dragons or red lanterns.
The big China box-office story of 2013 is the sudden surge of local movies, which grossed $1.57 billion during the first nine months of the year -- up 94 percent. What do you make of this?
This is a very important time for China. It's not about preparing for this market anymore; Hollywood missed that opportunity six years ago [when China's film sector began to expand]. Now you need real help, and fast. India and China combined are half the world -- does Hollywood want to surrender the field in half the world? The script isn't written, but Hollywood is going to have to make some bold moves to turn this thing around.