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Whether it’s a collaboration with Hollywood or the digital disruption of the distribution business, Zhang Zhao, CEO of Le Vision Pictures, has positioned his studio at the vanguard of the many forces remaking the Chinese film industry.
In December, Le Vision and Thomas Tull’s Legendary Entertainment will release The Great Wall, the biggest U.S.-China co-production ever made. With an estimated budget of $160 million, the 3D fantasy-action spectacle was directed by Chinese maestro Zhang Yimou and stars Matt Damon, Andy Lau and Willem Dafoe, along with a long list of China’s hottest young talent (U.S. release is set for Feb. 17, 2017).
The third-largest movie studio by revenue in China, Le Vision is a subsidiary of Beijing-based technology company LeEco, whose diverse business interests span online video services, e-commerce, smart TVs, virtual reality, mobile phones and even an internet-connected
electric car named LeSEE, which has been touted as China’s answer to Tesla.
At Cannes, Le Vision will hold a press conference May 12 for its forthcoming fantasy-adventure film Time Raiders, an adaptation of the hugely successful young adult book of the same name, which has sold more than 20 million copies in China. Directed by Daniel Lee Yan-kong, the film stars singer-actor Lu Han and Monster Hunt’s Boran Jing.
Zhang, 54, invited THR to his Beijing office to discuss making The Great Wall, how old-fashioned story development is the key to co-productions and why the Chinese market is “for everyone.”
Besides making a high-quality, financially successful film, what were your strategic goals for Le Vision’s involvement in The Great Wall?
As a studio CEO, my goal was to show that true U.S.-China co-productions are going to happen in a big way, sooner rather than later. I call it the G2 strategy — the two great film industries working together. We have the world’s two biggest film markets. China also has a very deep cultural heritage, with myths and classic stories that haven’t been visualized and shared with the world yet. Hollywood is the strongest center of movie production. So, if we work together, we can really enhance the cinematic experience for everyone. The Great Wall is a wonderful start. To me, it’s a dream come true.
Hollywood and China have never worked together on such a grand scale. What were some of the challenges you encountered?
People ask me, ‘Who is the lead of this movie? You’ve got Matt Damon and Andy Lau, and 10 more U.S. and Chinese stars. Who’s carrying the story?” There’s only one lead actor: The Great Wall of China. The Great Wall is gigantic and it’s one of the miracles of human history — there are so many stories you can tell and it’s a big responsibility. This is also a very big movie, with a master filmmaker, big stars and huge action scenes. The wall is a like a huge machine in this film. So, of course, there are many challenges. But the biggest one comes at the start: the story. For a co-pro like this, many people get distracted by the box office potential, the financing proportions, the casting considerations; but it must start with developing a really organic story that both territories’ audiences will feel comfortable with. That’s the hardest piece.
And how do you do that?
You spend a few years in development hell. [Laughs] It’s always been this way in the industry, but for co-pros it’s even harder. One day we will do U.S.-China-India co-pros, and those will take even more intelligence and time. Of course, you’re taking risks here. If you’re making one movie for one territory, that’s easier. If you want to please two or three territories totally, it takes much more effort. But this is the process of globalization. It’s not about importing and exporting movies across borders. It’s not about content traffic. It’s about making content together, on a global basis.
At the American Film Market last November, Le Vision announced a slate of 10 films, all intended to be tentpole-scale U.S.-China co-pros telling Chinese stories. What’s your development operation in LA like?
We have a wonderful team — it’s my secret army! It’s half Chinese, half Hollywood, all very experienced, above-average professionals from the two industries. These projects take a lot of understanding and teamwork, and a non-commercial approach. I give them as much time as they need to discuss and develop stories. In 2017 and 2018, you’ll see a bunch of these projects going into production. We will partner with all of the studios. Everyone in Hollywood is talking about co-pros now. It’s coming.
Is the U.S. audience ready for lots of Chinese stories?
English is the global language, so these films will be Chinese stories told in English. We will use Hollywood and Chinese actors who can all speak English. I was talking with a U.S. studio friend recently about how there are not enough movies going into U.S. theaters for the audience, because the studios are producing bigger and bigger movies, but fewer and fewer of them. I think we will see more movies in American cinema soon. Why? Because there are so many co-productions coming up. We’ve got this huge market of China to back these movies up, so we can put them into the U.S. market and try. Like I said, this is coming soon.
LeEco, your parent company, is involved in so many things. How does Le Vision benefit the parent company and how does the parent company benefit Le Vision?
We don’t own movie theaters — that’s a real estate and retail business model, and it’s not what we do. But we look at all of our devices as online theaters. Smart TVs, VR, mobile phones are all digital theaters. Our electric car is basically a theater on wheels. We’re not a device company, from my point of view. The devices are simply for watching our content, which comes from our video platform in the cloud. Our digital content subscriptions subsidize the devices for consumers. We have all these different ways of transmitting content to viewers, and we have all this data on how they are watching. We are an online-to-offline studio, which is unique in the world.
Chinese companies like LeEco and Alibaba are driving the filmed entertainment industry into a new digital future. But at the same time, China is also the great hope of the old school theatrical model, thanks to the thousands of movie theaters that are being built across the country. It’s an interesting mix of the conventional and cutting-edge.
People will continue to go to theaters, but for social reasons, not just for watching movies. This is important. So we will try to help the theaters to digitize their screens and then hook up with the Internet. This whole industry should be a connected world. It’s not about older versus newer — it’s about creating more value for users and viewers. If they want to go to theaters, great; if they want to watch a move in a car, great; watch something on your phone in the subway, great. We don’t look to diminish what already exists; our company is always looking for ways to dig up and discover new value for the customer. For improving the theater experience, I think we can do a much better job than North America.
How do you mean?
There’s nothing happening in U.S. theaters. The lobby is usually empty and people just walk in to buy a ticket and some concessions and that’s it. What a waste of space; it’s a wasted opportunity. People should be buying the tickets online and there should be exciting marketing events, more social attractions — more ways for people have fun together and connect with the content at the cinema. I think the distribution and exhibition model in the United States is falling behind. That’s why their box office is not growing. They’re making better and better movies. That’s not the problem. The question is how do you provide more value and services outside content.
At AFM, you also announced a deal with Dark Horse Comics to adapt six Chinese Internet novels into U.S. comic books. What’s the strategy there?
This is the second stage of our development slate. It’s a very ambitious way of developing co-production material. There are many internet novels in China which are very popular, with millions and millions of Chinese readers. If you want to brand these stories in the U.S. market before adapting them into co-productions, how do you do that? Well, you take it and turn it into a comic book in English, and build a fanbase for the IP in the United States. We can also go the opposite direction with U.S. IP. We’re starting the co-production process very early. It takes a long time, but it’s very important. We’re working to develop these stories for both markets the whole way.
Wanda recently purchased Legendary Entertainment, your U.S. co-production partner on The Great Wall. Do you think a Chinese company might eventually own one of the big six Hollywood studios?
There’s too much money talk right now. Hollywood thinks, “Oh, they’re coming to buy us,” and people start to remember the late 80s when Sony bought Columbia. But buying things shouldn’t be the goal; forming true inter-learning partnerships brings bigger rewards. I don’t bring my wallet when I go to LA, because when I buy someone, I just lose a partner. Partnership is what this relationship needs. When I go to Hollywood and talk about China, I always say, “this is a market for everyone, including you guys.” We need to work together. I don’t ask for money and I don’t offer money — you bring your product, and you work with these great producer partners, marketers and distributors and create new value.
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