Expect China to have same cutting edge when it comes seeking Hollywood gold


It came to me while watching the Olympics pairs-skating competition, the event being one of the times when national comparisons are impossible to ignore.

For years, the sport has been dominated by the Russians, whose skill, prowess and dance-inspired moves were unparalleled. This time, though, it was the Chinese who salchowed their way to the gold and silver, leaving the Russians shut out of medal contention and flummoxed to boot.

While there always are a few key moments of a race that one remembers from each Olympics, it's mostly the spontaneous reactions that are imprinted most indelibly. In the case of the pairs skate, it was a dejected Tamara Moskvina, the much acclaimed Russian choreographer and coach, who had to watch her latest prodigy fall irredeemably during their free skate, juxtaposed with the elated winning couple, who came out of retirement to try their luck one more time.

We saw some of this pumped-up pride during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, as well as the determination and dedication the Chinese display when they set their minds to something. Being world-class in sports obviously is one of those things, and the NBC announcers made much of sacrifices the coach and skaters made to get to Vancouver. It's the types that raise eyebrows in the West: athletes essentially removed from their families and brought up as wards of the state, and coaches putting marriages on hold for decades to focus on their trainees. (I realize the Chinese might find American parents' obsession with their children's sports equally disconcerting. So do I.)

The interesting point, though, is the unremitting focus the Chinese place on activities they wish to excel in and their almost-childlike need for the world to recognize and appreciate their achievements. Admittedly, they aren't among the countries racking up gold at the Vancouver Games, but something tells me they will be a force in whatever events they set their minds to.

Sports, in fact, is just the most obvious area in which the Chinese have made a commitment to shine, and I can't help but wonder how long it will be before they manage to do the same in the global entertainment business.

If and when they do, their eyes no doubt will train on Hollywood. All they have to do is look at the phenomenal worldwide success of Fox's "Avatar," including in their still-fenced-in backyard, to see what resonance (and money) flows from cultural domination.

I'm guessing they scratched their collective heads even before that, when last year they saw a company from their biggest rival, India, strike up a relationship with and take a sizable equity stake in Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks.

Even more galling might have been seeing how well, and amusingly, Disney and other major U.S. entertainment companies have managed to work their magic on iconic Chinese characters, as in "Kung Fu Panda" and "Mulan." Imagine the conversation at the Ministry of Promulgation and Promotion of National Patrimony. About the DreamWorks deal: Have we no chutzpah? About Disney's treatment of Chinese classics: Why didn't we think of that?

Despite the central government authorities' reluctance to loosen control and oversight of media at home, I can't see them standing in the way of a local company's foray into Hollywood. It's likely to be one or another of the growing number of privatized or semi-privatized commercial entities that are ramping up and wanting to burst upon the international scene; such names as Shanghai Media Group, Baidu.com and China Mobile come to mind.

Such an entree into Tinseltown -- lawyers and consultants in Los Angeles say it's just a matter of time before a Chinese conglomerate takes the plunge -- will be as interesting a development as the period when the Japanese (Matsushita and Sony) bought two Hollywood studios a couple of decades ago.

Unlike the self-effacing and overpaying Japanese, however, I would expect the Chinese to be much more hard-nosed about the business they buy into, intent on imbibing whatever lessons in creativity there are to be had and just as intent on making sure Chinese values play a role in the big picture.

When the Japanese were making inroads into the U.S. during the late 1980s, there was a hue and cry about how our business culture, if not our overall culture, was being upstaged or even overrun. That reaction proved short-lived because the Japanese played a low-key game and because their country soon entered a slump that has endured until now.

China is another story: We didn't want them buying into our oil companies, we complain that they've destroyed America's textiles and furniture businesses, and piracy in that country of 1.3 billion arguably undermines U.S. efforts to extract fair value for Hollywood content. However, once they're here in a significant way, it'll be fascinating to see how they perform on the most competitive ice there is, and how our own reactions shift in watching them.