With 'Avatar'-themed show, Cirque du Soleil sets sights on China, again

Cirque du Soleil bringing 'Avatar'-inspired show to China in 2017

Cirque du Soleil will bring its upcoming “Avatar”-inspired show to China in 2017 and open a permanent 1,400-seat theater in the city of Hangzhou the following year, executives said Monday on the sidelines of the Shanghai International Film Festival.

The Canada-based Cirque sold a majority stake earlier this year to U.S. private equity fund TPG and Chinese insurance and finance conglomerate Fosun, which is moving rapidly into such areas as entertainment, travel and healthcare as China’s middle class expands.

Fosun has invested in Studio 8, the new film production company headed by former Warner Bros. studio chief Jeff Robinov, as well as in Chinese studio Bona Film. Fosun also purchased Club Med this year.

The Avatar-themed show, called “Toruk,” is slated to open in Canada in December, then tour North America before arriving in China. “Avatar” was the first film to gross more than $200 million in China, and Daniel Lamarre, chief executive of Cirque du Soleil, said that made it the “right show to enter China with because ‘Avatar’ had huge success in this country.”

“In the next five years, you’ll see a lot of Cirque in China,” Lamarre said. Director James Cameron, who is involved with creating “Toruk” and is working on several “Avatar” sequels for 20th Century Fox, appeared by video at Monday’s announcement. Jim Gianopulos, 20th Century Fox chairman, also was on hand in Shanghai for the event; the studio is a partner in the live show.

The move is Cirque’s second major attempt at cracking the Chinese market. Starting in 2008, the company had a show, “Zaia,” at The Venetian in the gambling hub of Macao, a semi-autonomous Chinese territory that is the only place in China where casinos are legal.

But unlike in Las Vegas, where Cirque’s highly stylized, theatrical acrobatic shows have had tremendous success, Macao proved a disappointment for the company. Most visitors to Macao prefer to gamble rather than attend shows and performances. “Zaia,” in a 1,800-seat theater, lasted about 3½ years.

“I think we were too early in the market in Macao,” Lamarre said Monday. “I was walking in the casino, and there were 75,000 people in the casino, but only 300 in the theater.

“Macao still was and is a gambling city,” he added. “Today, there is not a market” for entertainment there.

Lamarre said the Hangzhou show, which will be at the heart of a large real-estate development, would have a “local flavor” but still be a “Cirque show.”

Broadway-style shows and other large-scale live entertainment are seen as major new growth areas as Chinese authorities push to develop “cultural industries” across the country, often granting favorable land development rights to companies that pledge to include theaters, theme parks and other such venues in their projects.

DreamWorks Animation is working with Chinese partners to build a theater, dining and entertainment district in Shanghai called Dream Center, opening in 2017, while developer and theater owner Dalian Wanda partnered with former Cirque director Franco Dragone, opening a production called the Han Show in a special-purpose theater in the central city of Wuhan last year. But initial ticket sales for that show have reportedly been slow.

Lamarre said Cirque was conducting extensive market research and said it would learn from its mistakes and those of others. “People want a Western brand but a local flavor,” he said. “Franco might have taken it a bit too far” in the Chinese direction, he added.

Cameron executive produced at 3-D film in 2012 for Cirque, called “Worlds Away,” but the movie never screened in China. Lamarre said he was hopeful that with Fosun’s involvement, the film now will be shown in mainland theaters.

Cirque, which sells about 12 million tickets a year — more than all Broadway shows combined, according to Lamarre — has 10 resident shows around the world, including eight in Vegas. In addition, it has 19 shows traveling worldwide. About 20% of Cirque’s performers, Lamarre added, are Chinese; the country has a long tradition of training skilled acrobats.

Monday’s splashy announcement ceremony included a brief performance from Cirque cast members, including a bra-and-bikini clad performer who balanced upside-down on the shoulders of a man likewise wearing only briefs.

Guo Guangchang, chairman of Fosun, said the company’s investment in Cirque was part of its strategy of promoting happiness and being “on trend.” He suggested the company saw opportunities to create more films based on Cirque content, and vice versa.

“Chinese people,” he said, “not supposed to just work very hard, they should also enjoy life. … What the future middle class lacks is quality content.”

With China’s middle class now numbering several hundred million — and expected to double to 500 million or 600 million in the coming years, the chairman added, Fosun wants the “best in class” lifestyle experiences and content for Chinese consumers. 

Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from China.

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