Legendary Pictures to produce movies in China through joint venture

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In the last few years China has emerged as one of the world's fastest-growing movie markets, but government restrictions have limited the ability of American studios to export their films there. Now a top Hollywood finance and production company is turning that formula around with a deal to make big-budget movies in China for export around the world.

Legendary Pictures, known for its role in such blockbusters as "The Dark Knight" and "The Hangover," has formed a China-based joint venture called Legendary East. Its primary partner is Huayi Bros. Media Corp., a publicly traded Chinese entertainment conglomerate with businesses including film production, marketing, distribution, movie theaters and music.

The new company in Hong Kong will produce one or two English-language pictures a year, described in a news release as "event-style films for worldwide audiences."

Because they will originate in China, the movies will not be subject to the government's limit of 20 foreign films per year. The Motion Picture Assn. of America and U.S. trade officials have been in talks with Chinese officials to raise that quota, but have not yet reached an agreement.

Box-office receipts in China more than doubled from 2008 to 2010 to $1.5 billion, according to research firm Screen Digest. In the last four years, the number of screens in the country has doubled to 6,200 -- a total projected to double again by 2015.

Among the biggest American hits in China in recent years was Legendary's 2010 science-fiction thriller "Inception," which grossed $68 million, and James Cameron's mega-hit "Avatar," which amassed $182 million in ticket sales when it was released in 2010.

Sony Pictures' 2009 remake of "The Karate Kid" was shot in China in partnership with government-controlled China Film Group and was a worldwide hit. In addition, several studios co-produce films in the country intended for local audiences.

Last year, former News Corp. President Peter Chernin launched a company intended to build entertainment and technology businesses in China, India and Indonesia.

"China is one of the most important economic and culturally significant areas in the world," Legendary Chairman Thomas Tull said in a statement. "And, we are deeply honored to establish a base in this region to create entertainment that is globally appealing in quality, scale and impact."

Tull, who was in Beijing on Thursday to unveil the new venture, was not available to provide more details.

Along with Huayi Bros., there are several other Chinese investors in Legendary East that have not been publicly disclosed, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Huayi Bros. will co-produce the movies with Legendary East and distribute them in China, while Legendary's U.S. studio partner, Warner Bros., will release them in the rest of the world.

Legendary East will be run by Chief Executive Kelvin Wu. He previously ran Orange Sky Golden Harvest, which made a $25-million investment in Legendary Pictures in September. Wu then joined Legendary's board of directors.

Tull will serve as Legendary East's executive chairman.

The venture marks a significant step for Legendary Pictures as it attempts to evolve from a co-financing partner for Warner Bros. into a more independent studio. That process started last fall when Tull bought out many of his original investors to establish more direct control of the company.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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