Jeff Robinov's Challenge: Make Movies Before Chinese Investors Lose Patience (Analysis)

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Jeff Robinov

The former Warner Bros. exec may be able to bring an especially attractive project together fast thanks to his close relationships with such talent as Christopher Nolan.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Former Warner Bros. film chief Jeff Robinov appears to be closing in on as much as $200 million from China-based Fosun International plus another $100 million from other sources for his new production company, Studio 8. But industry sources say the challenges are far from over. Assuming the deal closes in a few months, executives with experience in China say Robinov will need to get off to a quick start to keep his new backers satisfied.

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Robinov will be undertaking the major endeavor of building a slate of movies while dealing with a vastly different culture that has proven impossible to crack for many of the U.S. entities eager to tap into what will soon be the biggest film market in the world.

"More people have spent more time there for less results than probably anywhere else in the world," acknowledges a source with ties to Robinov. But this person adds that in Fosun, the executive is working with "long-term, smart investors. They're not impatient." And thanks to strong relationships with filmmakers including Dark Knight's Christopher Nolan, Robinov may be able to make some quick, impressive moves once his financing comes together.

Due to the delicacy and fluidity of negotiations, Robinov has declined to comment on his plans.

Many Hollywood figures have trekked to China and come away with nothing but frustration. Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull recently told THR that the dealings he's had in that country have been the most challenging of his career. "Anybody who says they've got it figured out -- I'd love to talk to them," he said.

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Executives with experience in China say impatience is a trait of investors generally but especially so with Chinese investors. "People don't expect you to be releasing movies [right away], but they expect you to be making movies," says one. "I would really be interested to know if Jeff has got something to start making. … Is he going to buy and develop and make movies within a year? That's a very difficult thing to do. The people who are investing say, 'We understand,' but they don't."

And in China, film production moves fast. A fairly big-budget movie with effects can be finished and in theaters in less than a year, or less than half the time that the process would take in the U.S. "Labor is cheap" and standards for the films are lower, explains this executive.

Building a slate is a slow process, says another industry veteran. "That's why it's hard to get the equity capital. You can't get a return on that investment for years," he says. Robinov "has some of the best relationships in the world [but] with people who are at Warners. You're not going to take these people away from Warners. They've got the material, and talent follows material."

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But Robinov may be able to bring an especially attractive project together fast, thanks to his close relationship with Nolan, who is wrapping up work on Interstellar for Warners and Paramount. A source close to Robinov says the two have not discussed any project, but Nolan has not committed to his next film after Interstellar, which will be released in November.

Robinov also can expect more scrutiny than he might have received from other foreign investors. While some have deferred to American industry veterans — as Sony and Matsushita did when they acquired Columbia Pictures and Universal Pictures, respectively — an executive with experience in China says companies in that country are staffed by "very sophisticated people who look closely and whose motivations for being in the business will never be clear to us. There is no transparency."

Another top executive points out that Robinov had little choice about where to seek backing. "You go where the money is." he says. "They'd better be patient. … Jeff's smart. He'll do good stuff. But it will take a long time."