Fraught U.S.-China Relationship Comes Into Focus at Asia Society Summit

Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging
Janet Yang and Daniel Dae Kim during the Asia Society Summit 2019.

While cross-cultural dealmaking took center stage at the event, geopolitical tensions between the Middle Kingdom and America could not be ignored.

For its 10th edition, the Asia Society’s annual summit underwent a name change that signifies the changing realities of its market focus.

Originally known as the U.S.-China Film Summit, the daylong conference, held Nov. 5 at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, is now known as the U.S.-Asia Entertainment Summit. The redub reflects both the summit’s long-standing coverage of the episodic and digital mediums but also an expanded acknowledgment and interest in the overall Asia sector, both as certain countries (especially India, South Korea and Japan) become major content players and also as the United States’ relationship with China is currently particularly fraught.

"As I don’t need to tell you, the bridges between the U.S. and Asia are in disrepair at the moment, particularly between China and the United States," Asia Society executive vice president Tom Nagorski said in his welcome address.

The morning’s keynote speaker, former Australian prime minister and current Asia Society Policy Institute president Kevin Rudd, went into even more detail: "Geopolitically, the U.S.-China relationship is increasingly fractious,” Rudd said, noting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tone and rhetoric when speaking of China’s "hostility" to American interests. "Apart from the obvious continuing flash points in the South China Sea, unresolved issues over Taiwan and unfolding protest movements in Hong Kong, there is a wider geopolitical competition between China and the United States."

That was as far as Rudd got on that point before the sound from his microphone cut out for several seconds. When the audio was restored, he turned to economic issues and assured the summit attendees — financiers, producers and other parties interested in U.S.-Asia co-productions — that mutual self-interest will keep the U.S. and China from entirely decoupling, even as American companies may continue to find themselves grappling with the Chinese government over censorship and foreign film quotas.

Later in the day, industry players continued to wrestle with the ongoing puzzle of cross-cultural dealmaking, from co-productions to IP adaptations. Alibaba Pictures president Wei Zhang, in a fireside chat with producer and summit chair Janet Yang, called The Martian "a perfect co-production," noting that the China element of the plot (the Chinese space program plays a pivotal part in rescuing Matt Damon’s protagonist) was an "organic" element of Andy Weir’s novel.

As the international market continues to grow (Asia Pacific is the No. 1 box office region in the world, encompassing eight of the top 20 markets) and mature, Asian IP holders have become more proactive in selling rights and making deals to adapt their content in Hollywood. Francis Chung, head of U.S. Films for the Korean conglomerate CJ Entertainment, said the company has grown from being "the most passive IP owners ever" to wantonly pitching their IP to "everybody in the industry" to now making targeted pitches. The company is partnering with Universal to remake its action comedy Extreme Job (which became Korea’s top-grossing movie of all time when it premiered in January) as a Kevin Hart vehicle. Chung revealed that CJ approached Hart with the project shortly after Extreme Job was greenlit in Korea, before it even began production.

"We’ve identified what’s going to work, and we go out to partners with a firm idea on how this should be remade," Chung said. "We knew [Extreme Job] would do well in the U.S. and that Kevin Hart would be a perfect creative partner, and by the time the Korean movie was released, we had already partnered with Universal for the remake. We’re shortening the gaps in the process."