BREAKING: Amblin president and co-CEO Jeff Small and Alibaba Pictures president Wei Zhang are definitely in their honeymoon period after Alibaba took an equity minority stake in Steven Spielberg’s company earlier this month. They said they have yet too identify a first project/co-production, and Small noted that they want to build out IPs whether they work together on original Amblin or Alibaba content.
The two executives’ comments came as they appeared together onstage at the U.S.-China Film Summit hosted by the Asia Society Southern California, which is taking place today at UCLA.
“We don’t have to have an East-meets-West movie,” said Zhang. “One of the movies we are trying to make (at Alibaba) is Flying Tigers. It doesn’t have to have that obvious (theme) in it; we are looking for human stories.” Small agreed.
The comments also come after Monday’s announcement from China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba that it will invest about $1.5B in the digital media and entertainment industries through its new label, Alibaba Digital Media & Entertainment Group. Alibaba has yet to target specific investments, and no light was shed on that today; instead, they spoke about how the relationship between Amblin and Alibaba came about.
“At Amblin we are storytellers led by the greatest storyteller of all time in Steven Spielberg, and we wanted to tell those stories locally,” said Small. “We knew that we needed a Chinese partner.”
After meeting with repeatedly the Alibaba team, he said, Spielberg and the rest of the Amblin team realized that “we shared vision and values and DNA, so it was obvious that we were right for each other.” Small said they hoped to learn about the Chinese consumer from Alibaba, from storytelling to business. “We are excited to see Alibaba Pictures grow and help us grow.”
Added Zhang: “We always wanted to be a studio and create content … the difference between the meeting we had with them and others is that we were really getting to know each other. We talked about what kind of company we wanted to build, getting to know each other and getting to know each other’s families. It is a true partnership. Not only is Steven great, but so is the staff. It’s a way of becoming family in a way.”She said the resources of Alibaba can help Amblin, not only bringing Amblin content to Chinese audiences but also tap into the ancillary markets. In turn, she said, they “would like to learn from Ambiln’s understanding of the global audience.”
“They truly believe in long-term partnerships … we are believers in that as well,” said Zhang. “In my past life I worked in the television world, and the film world is so different and it takes time to tell a story. We are really interested in telling great stories. Only when you share the same values can you go on the same journey. There are going to be challenges ahead of time, but mutual values and vision will help you come through it.”
So how do you navigate in the marketplace when there is such an appetite rush it out to make money? “We’ve never been in the place where we are going to rush something out,” said Small. “It’s the same way we look at our partnership. There are a lot of what you would call ‘deals’ out there, but there is no connective tissue there. Someone is getting something from someone else. You exploit this, you exploit that. But Steven has never looked at anything like that. It’s not a ‘deal,’ it’s a partnership. I feel the Alibaba team feels the same way.”
Janet Yang, Managing Director of Creative Content at Tang Media Partners, moderated that panel.
The themes that grew out the morning session was that the Chinese want to learn from the U.S. distributors of how to grow their film industry in the proper way and the Hollywood companies are looking for access to capital and access to theaters in China (distribution), which is growing exponentially now and is poised to take over the U.S. film industry in terms of box office. “Chinese content will be the dominant force in China (in five years),” predicted Zhou Yuan, Founder and EVP of Linmon Pictures. “And the U.S. will have to invest also in China.”
in an earlier panel, Vantage Entertainment President Michelle Yang acknowledged: “There are still serious issues in China with piracy, The film box office in China is not good because there is not a lot of good content,” so they need the U.S. productions. “The U.S. film companies have very good prospects.”
They also talked about the growth of theme parks in China, which Wanda already has begun. Disney also opened a Shanghai theme park. With that comes a growth in sales of merchandise. “There has been a huge problem with piracy and counterfeit merchandise in China, so there will be a crackdown,” added William Pfeiffer, co-founder and co-CEO of Globalgate Entertainment, who said he used to work at Disney. Indeed, Disney characters have been stolen and then the Chinese have put up theme parks right next to Disney’s theme parks.
Recently embattled Sony executive Tom Rothman cut a deal with Chinese conglom Wanda; part of that deal will include putting Sony product in Wanda theme parks the way that MGM/UA puts characters into Disney theme parks and Universal gets Harry Potter characters, though the deals are very different.
Said one executive with years of experience in both domestic and international production: “Everyone wants to do business with Alibaba. This is about, how do we get the largest single audience in the world now to see the movies we make? They are enormous, and it’s the only ancillary money you can really get of out China. It’s pure economics.”