Musicals Set to Soar in China Once Local Projects Start to Flow

Ivy Zhong - H 2015
Clifford Coonan

Industry executive Ivy Zhong has scored with overseas projects, but is banking on the domestic market.

Ivy Zhong, formerly of troubled Chinese indie film company Beijing Galloping Horse, branched out into musicals last year and was swiftly rewarded when one of the projects she invested in, An American in Paris, won four Tonys last month.

It was only months ago that Zhong set up Beijing-based China Broadway Entertainment with Sean Hsu, chairman of digital entertainment firm China Digital Culture. The company put what has been reported as "several hundred thousand dollars" into An American in Paris.

Zhong says she backed An American in Paris partly because she was such a big fan of the Gene Kelly movie from 1951. For Zhong, the focus right now is developing homegrown musicals that will work in China as observers see much upside to the small burgeoning musicals business in China.

"So far the Chinese market is not that hot, even though a lot of people say it is getting better. I still think it will take a bit of time. Companies like ours have the responsibility to train this market," Zhong said in an interview with THR in Beijing.

There is scope for growth. The most recent data published in the China Daily newspaper put musicals revenue at $37 million in 2013, a tiny figure when one considers the size of the potential market and that China is already the second-largest film market in the world.

At Galloping Horse, Zhong was overseeing such big projects as John Woo's The Crossing, but the company fell into the turmoil of a family feud over stock ownership in the wake of the sudden death in January 2014 of its founder and chairman, Li Ming, reportedly while aiding authorities with a corruption investigation.

After Li's death, there was a public dispute between his widow, Jin Yan, his sister Li Li, now CEO of the company, and Li Mong, who runs the group's TV operations. The company has been majorly restructured.

Zhong left, and while she still has stock in Galloping Horse, her focus is on generating content and other aspects of her business now.

"When I ran Galloping Horse, we did everything, but now this company is concentrating on content. We have TV drama, movies, and also Broadway shows, immersive shows and musicals. We try to use a new style. Content is very important," said Zhong.

To make homegrown Chinese musicals that will do well, Zhong has chosen Taiwanese singer and actor Jay Chou, who is hugely popular on the mainland and is a judge on The Voice of China, and a fellow Taiwanese, record producer Jonathan Lee, who is also linked to The Voice of China.

"Their music has a big audience and a big market. So we can use their music to train this market," said Zhong. "Jay Chou is even using The Voice of China to find his main actor and actress, that’s very good and it makes more and more people at least know that they are trying to help the market evolve."

She is not alone in investing in Broadway. State-backed private equity fund China Media Capital invested in the production company behind Something Rotten! and Hand to God, which won five Tony nominations.

Currently, several companies are doing work for both international and domestic markets, but increasingly the focus is on the Chinese market.

"Musicals will become more and more international like the movie business. It is very important to choose the right kind of shows for the Chinese market. That’s why at home I choose more commercial shows. More and more people are stuck inside online, and they don’t come out. If you want them to come out, you must give them something that they can get interact with," she said.

The first project will be a campus love story and should be ready by summer 2016.

Cameron Mackintosh was the first to come to China, taking Les Miserables to Shanghai back in 2002 and Cats a year later, but he has been cautious in trying to build the market. The language barrier continues to be a problem.

And some foreign shows have struggled in China, but Mandarin versions of shows like Mamma Mia! have packed them in.

In addition to Broadway shows, Zhong is bringing Ice Age Live! to China in July. And she is about to launch a new creative space in Beijing's hip 798 district and at the Beijing Film Festival, she announced a tie-up between her newly formed Chinese company Jetavana and international publisher Humanoids to develop a slate of movies from Humanoid's graphic novel catalog.

The first project, Metal, based on the graphic novel by Jerrold Brown, Paul Alexander, Butch Guice and Roman Surzhenko, is already in development. Helping them along the way is legendary producer Pierre Spengler, who was a producer with the Salkind Organization which did the original Superman trilogy.

Zhong has also launched an app called Weboss, which provides services for Chinese film industry professionals, including recruitment, investment and financing services, crowd funding and social activities.