Hollywood's flowering relationship with China is showing no signs of wilting. Though China's economic growth has slowed, the film business continues to grow in leaps and bounds. The Motion Picture Assn. of America recently predicted the box office in China would surpass that of the U.S. by 2017. And deals on both sides of the Pacific continue to proliferate.
Fresh evidence of that emerged this week when Le Vision Pictures USA, the Los Angeles offshoot of the Chinese tech giant LeTV, took to the Sofitel hotel in Beverly Hills to unveil a slate of 10 Chinese-U.S. films billed as Hollywood-style movies rooted in Chinese mythology and history.
That wasn't all. Le Vision said it was partnering with leading book publisher Dark Horse Comics to adapt six Chinese graphic novels into English language books, in addition to signing a two-picture deal with "The Lion King" director Rob Minkoff and distributing Lionsgate's fantasy feature "Gods of Egypt" in China.
Le Vision Pictures, which launched in 2011, is the studio behind "Tiny Times," China's highest grossing film franchise, and helped Lionsgate turn "The Expendables" sequels into hits in China. The studio also partnered with Legendary East and Universal Pictures on "The Great Wall," the upcoming science-fiction epic starring Matt Damon that is the largest coproduction to date.
Le Vision also has a growing presence in Los Angeles. The company opened an office in West Los Angeles last year to build closer ties with filmmakers and to expand other lines of business, including ecommerce, large screen TVs, smartphones and even electric cars.
The Times spoke to Le Vision Pictures Chief Executive Zhang Zhao about the recent announcements and his thoughts on helping to bridge Hollywood, China and Silicon Valley.
You recently announced a slate of 10 new U.S-China coproductions. What kinds of films are these?
These are English-language tentpole films that will originate from China and are for the global market. These are coming from Chinese myths and ancient literature, but the story will be told like a Hollywood commercial movie, like "The Great Wall." We've been preparing that ["The Great Wall"] for two and half years. It's a milestone. Hopefully, it will break through, and everyone will see that there are many movies between Hollywood and China that can be shown in theaters.
Are you're looking for Hollywood studio partners for these new films?
I don't need to look. We're in the process of making coproductions with every studio here, as well as big independents like Lionsgate. They are very much interested because these movies are considered domestic Chinese movies. They aren't subject to quotas, which means [studios] can get 45% of the revenues versus 25% of tickets sales. In a couple of years, when the box office in China will pass the U.S., that's a lot.
In your speech in Beverly Hills, you referenced a "G2 strategy." What do you mean by that?
It's a collaboration between these great two nations, cultures and industries: the Chinese film industry and the Hollywood film industry. Combined, we probably have 50% to 60% of the global box office market, not counting the online market. So we should work together and create new movies, new ways of storytelling and new ways of connecting movie entertainment to lifestyles and apply that to all these developing countries.
In addition to movies, LeTV makes television sets, smartphones, electronic cars and operates an Internet streaming service. How does film fit into the diversified portfolio of companies?
We want to build the world's first connected studio. Content is the entrance for all kind of services that are all connected. We want the users to have the freedom to chose where they want to watch their movie, when they want to watch the movie and how they can watch it. That's a very user-friendly philosophy. We're an Internet company. All our customers are Internet users. They want to get everything on Internet, so our system is six-screen connected. You have a screen in the theater, in your living room, on your computer, your iPad, mobile phone and the car; it's a screen on wheels. You can watch anything, any time."
Does that mean you favor so-called day-and-date releases when films appear in the home at the same time they debut in cinemas?
In a way, once you have those smart devices, it's no longer a question of day-and-date. Day-and-date is a territory concept. So we're going to break boundaries. It's OK if people in Slovakia ordered a movie one day before the U.S. theatrical release. You can stream a movie into someone's house for a birthday party. If they paid for it, why not? That's why we have the world's largest open cloud system to support that. We have over 600 content-delivery networks across 33 countries that can provide video-streaming services.
In the U.S., attempts by Netflix to release movies into the home on the same day they're released in theaters have backfired with major theater chains who feel the strategy hurts their business. How do you avoid that kind of conflict with theater chains?
We work together with theaters. We provide a lot of new content to theaters — sports, concerts, live shows. We have our TV sets in the theaters, so theaters love us. We're putting movies on television, only for our smart TVs, and people get excited. We will show premieres of movies — just one or two hours of the film — for limited members of our TV set buyers. It's 3-D and 4-K, so it's great quality.
It's not a conflict with the theatrical release; it's great marketing. When you generate that kind of heat, everybody starts talking about the film. People have started to realize the market has to be changed. Hollywood is too strong. They are B-to-B thinking, not B-to-C thinking.
So you're not just seeking coproduction partners, but you're trying to change the way Hollywood does business?
Studios are going through quite a difficult time, but they are not talking to Silicon Valley that well. Whereas in China, Mr. Jia [Jia Yueting, chairman and founder of LeTV] and me, we teamed up many years ago, so we don't have any problem. I'm hoping I can bring Hollywood and Silicon Valley together. I'm the bridge in a calming, nonthreatening way. You guys work together and I will demonstrate to you in China how things work out.
The Internet is going to turn the movie industry from a content-centered industry into a service-centered industry. That's the key.
What do you mean by that?
Why don't people go to theaters [in the U.S.]? If they can watch a movie on their smart TV sets, why do they need to go to the theater? You need to have a reason to go to the theater. The reason is service.
I'll give you an example. "Coming Home" [the 2014 film from acclaimed director Zhang Yimou] is our film. It's a story about mother and daughter during the Cultural Revolution. For the younger generation, they don't have any Cultural Revolution experience. So how are we going to market it? We say, 'We made the movie for your mothers.' We release the film on Mother's Day.
A month before the movie opens, we market it on Internet and social media sites and ask all these young women to buy tickets for their mothers for Mother's Day. All the daughters have that kind of love-hate relationship with their mothers, so they buy the tickets.
Plus they order a car service to deliver their parents to theaters [using LeTV's car-sharing platform]. When the parents get to the car, they see flowers in the seat. When they come out of theaters, they get free merchandise with a shopping bag that says, " 'Coming Home' — Happy Mother's Day."
All these mothers, they start talking about this movie with their daughters. We made $300 million. The key is to think about users and how they relate to the Internet."