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Ex-Disney studio chief launches new company with $150 million from China

Chinese investment group funds $150 million for ex-Disney studio chief's new L.A.-based entertainment company

In Hollywood's latest big-money deal with China, former Walt Disney studio chairman Dick Cook on Monday launched his own entertainment company with $150 million from a Chinese investment group. The new L.A.-based entity, called Dick Cook Studios, will focus on creating family-oriented movies, TV shows and other entertainment.

The company will produce live-action as well as animated movies and television shows and digital and educational products. The deal with investor CITIC Guoan was announced Monday by Cook at the Beijing Film Market, part of the Beijing International Film Festival.

“This has been quite a journey for all of us,” a beaming Cook said at the festival. “It takes time to find the right company and people you want to be in business with.”

Cook's career with Disney began as a ride operator at Disneyland in 1970. He moved to the studio in the late 1970s and took over as Disney studio chairman in 2002, serving seven years, until he was ousted in 2009.

Cook had been seeking to start up a family-entertainment-focused production company for a number of years. In an interview, he said his new company would start with two to three films per year stateside. "We're not looking to do 15 movies. We'd probably never do more than six to eight movies if we get that far."

In addition, Cook said the company would set up a joint venture in China aimed at producing Chinese films, with a goal of making three movies in the first four years. No projects have been decided yet, he said.

"There is a real treasure trove of stories and fables and myths and legends that we're going through, trying to figure out the stories we want to tell and in what order," Cook said.

Deals worth close to $1 billion between China and Hollywood have been announced in recent months. China's Hunan TV closed an agreement to invest $375 million in Lionsgate's movie slate over three years; real estate firm Fosun last year put $200 million into Jeff Robinov's new Studio 8 production company; and Beijing-based Huayi Bros. studio announced last month that it was investing in an 18-picture slate with Robert Simonds' STX Entertainment. 

Three years ago, real estate giant Dalian Wanda bought AMC Theatres for $2.6 billion.

"A couple of years ago, or even as recently as last summer, there was a feeling in Hollywood that Chinese companies would kick the tires but they wouldn't buy. But Chinese companies have taken their time to learn what they’re getting into. That’s why it took some time," said Bennett Pozil, executive vice president at Pasadena-based East West Bank who worked on the Lionsgate deal and scores of other film financing projects in China. "I think we’re at the beginning; this trend will continue. With the Chinese film companies, they’re very smart and very shrewd in a good way."

CITIC Guoan is branch of China’s massive state-owned CITIC Group, and has business interests worth more than $15 billion ranging from TV to tourism, publishing and sports. CITIC Guoan Chairman Li Shilin said he chose to partner with Cook and his team because of their long experience.

“They appreciate and understand traditional Chinese culture, and they look forward to telling Chinese stories that will play to families across the globe,” he said.

Cook said he had traveled to China four times in approximately the last year seeking to seal the deal. For now, the company's start-up offices are based in Burbank, on Forest Lawn Drive near Warner Bros. Cook would not say how many staffers he planned to hire in Southern California.

"We will continue to be there for a while. We will gradually build up; we're not going to have huge overhead -- we are going to be overhead averse," he said. "We are going to outsource a lot. We're not looking to do a gillion movies -- we don't want to be the biggest, just the best."

Hollywood has seen waves of foreign investment before -- notably from India a few years ago, as well as Europe. But the synergies with China go deeper, Pozil said, because China is now the No. 2 movie market in terms of box office, behind only North America, and it's growing at about 35% annually.

"If you look at China right now, it's the most exciting market on the planet. There are great filmmakers, great companies who know the market here [in China]. ... You’re taking the two best markets and putting them together," he said, speaking from Beijing.

"So it’s hard to compare to past waves [of investment], because there's value outside the money they bring. With China, it’s not about money; it’s about access. Chinese companies have a lot to offer their Western counterparts. And Chinese companies are looking for how to take their brands and expand [them] internationally."

Follow @JulieMakLAT for news from China

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

4:37 a.m.: This article has been updated to include comments from East West Bank executive vice president Bennett Pozil.

1:56 a.m.: This article has been updated to include the number of pictures the company plans to produce per year and background information on other deals. 

This article was originally published at 12:31 a.m. 

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