Walt Disney signs up Chinese firm to co-produce ‘Iron Man 3’


HONG KONG — In a move that underscores the importance of the fast-growing Chinese movie market to Hollywood, Walt Disney Co. has struck a partnership with a Beijing firm on its big-budget American superhero film “Iron Man 3.”

This is the second business endeavor Disney has undertaken in the last week in the world’s most populous country. On April 10, the Burbank entertainment giant announced a partnership with the animation division of China’s largest Internet company, Tencent Holdings Ltd., offering its expertise in storytelling and market research to help foster local talent. Disney is building its first theme park in mainland China, a $3.7-billion attraction in Shanghai slated to open in 2015. And, the company operates a network of English-language schools in the country.

With its “Iron Man 3” movie venture, Disney and its Marvel Studios unit are teaming with DMG Entertainment, a 19-year-old private Beijing advertising firm turned film producer and aspiring distributor, to co-finance and distribute the third movie in the hit franchise. The first two blockbusters in the series had combined worldwide ticket sales of more than $1.2 billion.

“Our collaboration with Disney and Marvel marks a milestone in the global entertainment landscape, as this signifies the first multibillion-dollar franchise to be produced between Hollywood and China,” DMG Chief Executive Dan Mintz said in a statement.

Actors Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Don Cheadle will return for “Iron Man 3,” to be directed by Shane Black. Black, a high-profile screenwriter in the 1990s whose credits include the “Lethal Weapon” films, previously directed only one movie, 2005’s lower-cost comedy murder mystery “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” which also starred Downey.

Filming on “Iron Man 3” will start in the U.S. in May and in China in late summer for release in May 2013. Last week, Mintz told the Los Angeles Times that the film’s budget was $200 million.

Disney did not reveal how much DMG would invest in the production, nor did it provide specifics about how much of the film would be shot in China. DMG will manage the Chinese production elements of “Iron Man 3” and keep the China distribution rights.

“The co-production of ‘Iron Man 3’ in China is testimony to the importance of this audience to Disney,” Stanley Cheung, Disney’s greater China managing director, said in a statement.

Foreign films co-produced in China have an easier time getting cleared by Chinese censors and are not subject to the country’s annual import cap.

China, with its expanding middle class, has overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest film market, after the United States. The Chinese box office reached $2.08 billion last year, marking its 10th consecutive year of double-digit growth. The U.S. box office, by comparison, fell to $10.2 billion in 2011, down 4% from 2010.

DMG boasts close ties with the state-run China Film Group, the country’s biggest studio and exclusive film importer. DMG helped China Film Group with the production and marketing of two recent propaganda films, one marking the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2009 and the other the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.

Last spring at a black-tie party, Mintz emceed the announcement of DMG’s partnership with Endgame Entertainment to make Rian Johnson’s film “Looper.” DMG added little-known Chinese actress Xu Qing to the time-travel action film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt, which will arrive in U.S. theaters this fall.

Mintz told The Times last week that DMG was going to “talk to the whole world but try to infuse Chinese elements.”

Disney is not alone in recognizing the potential of China. Hollywood production company Legendary Entertainment formed a joint venture in China last year called Legendary East and is now trying to put together new financing after failing to initially raise money on the Hong Kong stock exchange. Also last year, Los Angeles film company Relativity Media announced a new partnership in China and shot parts of its movie “21 and Over” in the country.

Special correspondent Landreth reported from Hong Kong and Times staff writer Chmielewski from Los Angeles.