Keith Richburg and Zhang Jie wrote an enjoyable piece in The Washington Post about the different ways in which the U.S. film industry is seeking to tap Hollywood. The article is encouraging in that it suggests that Hollywood is getting over its blinkered view of China as a really big version of France (big market, different language, resists our product, resistance is futile, will eventually be assimilated.)
The article notes that product placement, scripts (read “story ideas”) and locales have made China more interesting to Hollywood. There is even a bit about the importance of “co-productions.”
It’s Spelled O-P-M
The biggest attraction, however, is cash.
For Hollywood, the reason for the sudden interest in China might be described as more mercenary. Hollywood traditionally runs on other people’s money – and China has a lot of cash to spread around these days.
Our favorite films notwithstanding, Tinseltown’s most remarkable achievement is its consistent ability to get outsiders to fund a business that is as unapologetically opaque as it is inherently risky.
In succession, Hollywood has tapped (and tapped out) Main Street USA (Gulf & Western, Kinney, Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), General Electric (NYSE:GE)), Main Street Japan (Matsushita, Sony (NYSE:SNE)) Main Street Europe (Vivendi (OTC:VIVDY)), and Wall Street (take your pick of hedge fund and private equity-funded film partnerships and virtual studios). In the wake of the financial crisis and the drying of the Wall Street wells, the emerging markets were a logical next target.
It took someone with the foresight (or desperation) of Stephen Spielberg to lead the way. Spielberg, a producer/director not normally associated with low-budget, high-return films, began the trend when he longtime collaborator Stacey Snider closed a $1.2 billion deal with India’s Reliance ADA Group to produce six films a year.
Barring an abrupt change in the mood on Wall Street, China looks to be next to fall into the celluloid web.
Or is it?
I’m Ready for my Closeup Now, Mr. Lou
Hollywood’s major studios and their affiliated production companies need literally billions of dollars a year to finance slates of films costing upwards of $100 million each to produce and market. There are a very limited number of entities in China capable of investing at that scale: the major state-owned banks, China Investment Corporation, and a handful of large state-owned industrial companies.
And while the leaders of those firms might well be attracted to Hollywood’s glamour, the Industry’s need comes at an inopportune time. CIC’s large paper losses in Blackstone Group (NYSE:BX) caused an uproar, and the financial crisis has placed the stewards of the people’s funds under uncomfortable scrutiny at home. Senior cadres can well imagine the popular backlash that would occur if it were to become known that national wealth was lost investing in Hollywood flicks, and would be anxious to avoid such a scenario.
It is also instructive to remember the popular consternation whipped up in the US when Japanese keiretsu began to invest heavily in Hollywood. That storm would be a squall compared to the typhoon of opposition and angst blowing out of all corners of the US if a Chinese government-owned entity attempted to buy into Hollywood. Hollywood’s leaders need to think carefully about whether they want to fritter their political capital in Washington on such a quest.
None of which is to suggest that China will stay out of Hollywood: the kind of picture-by-picture deals that the WaPo article alludes to will continue and grow, and I think we can expect slow but growing connections between the US and Chinese film industries.
But we would be wrong to forget that the dynamics driving The Biz in the two countries are vastly different, as are the cultures they are spawning, and that it is a sizeable leap from an increase in co-productions to China replacing Wall Street as Hollywood’s Sugar Daddy.