Over the next two months, IM Global will begin moving into unscripted television both in the U.S. and in China with an eye to eventually produce local-language films in the Middle Kingdom. It’s all part of a global strategy to expand in TV and local-language biz following an influx of capital recently, IM Global CEO Stuart Ford told the audience at the U.S.-China Film Summit hosted by the Asia Society Southern California.
In June, Tang Media Partners acquired a majority ownership interest in the 8-year-old IM Global. The company and its Shanghai- and Los Angeles-based investment partner Tang then partnered under the IM Global Television banner with China Internet giant Tencent in a TV production joint venture.
Through that, they established a dedicated — and rather unique — television fund, so they will be dipping into it and producing unscripted television. Asked about how many hours, Ford said they have not decided yet, but the spend will be significant.
“We’ve already committed to a number of fairly high-profile, big-budget shows, and over the next couple of years our high-end television scripted output will match in terms of budget, profile and, hopefully, revenues as our feature business,” he said.
IM Global TV’s scripted pipeline includes pilot Time Of Death at TNT and projects Cat’s Cradle at FX with Fargo’s Noah Hawley and Darkover at Amazon.
The feature business is an impressive one — IM Global has financed, co-financed and helped to produce Mel Gibson’s Oscar hopeful Hacksaw Ridge, the Matthew McConaughey-starring Free State Of Jones, Martin Scorsese’s Oscar possibility Silence and The Circle starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. IM Global also handled international rights and sales for several films including Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, which broke box office records in China for the biggest opening-day and single-day gross, the biggest opening week ever. It sits as the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time.
“We will also be will be moving into unscripted television in a fairly substantial way over the next couple of months and our hope is not just to be a prolific and high-profile player in the U.S. in the unscripted arena but also in China and to produce content locally for that marketplace,” he said, adding that the company and their partners are looking to produce local features in China. The idea is to cross collateralize content between the two countries.
IM Global has had a local office in Beijing for a number of years to open a day-to-day dialogue with the local market. “I’ve had an affinity for that part of the world and, like everybody else, could see that it was going to become hugely important to our business. We took an approach that was a little bit different than others … which was instead of immediately rushing in to see what we could grab in terms of financing and distribution, we took the approach, let’s make ourselves relevant and part of the community in China.”
They began servicing Chinese-language films in the international market which, he said, was embraced by the film community because within the Chinese sector, there wasn’t anyone that was particularly skilled in that international sales. “A Hollywood company with a big global infrastructure and that kind of skill set and major market presence was immediately attractive to companies” who wanted to monetize and expand their brands, said Ford. “We’ve handled a number of commercial successes in the three-to-four years we’ve been doing that … and had the pleasure of working with most of the major, local players,” such as Wanda, Huayi Brothers and China Film Group. So, he said, the Chinese have been “real partners as opposed to just showing up with our hands out.” (The company has an output deal with Huayi).
Asked if they thought about producing any titles for the local market in China, Ford said, “We’ve thought about it. We have Chinese partners in the company … it’s highly possible that we’ll do that and take that leap. We have a thriving business setting up remakes of international films in China which is really interesting area of the business so I can see us being in that arena of the business sooner than later.”
He also commented about the changing North American market. “These days it is a tricky path to navigate more than ever because releasing films in the U.S. is a hard business. Reaching the audience increasingly fragmented and overly informed is increasingly difficult. It’s become more of a crapshoot.” He said, “for the American theatrical business to cure itself” and get back to a place of success, everyone needs to look at digital platforms. “The audience lives online today.”
He said, “In an ideal world, whatever film we’re making we hope it gets a substantial release in China. Obviously, it’s a unique marketplace and … you have the censorship issue, the quotas … and even assuming you have a film that is able to navigate through all that … you still have to find a distributor who has an appetite for the film. It’s a difficult process to navigate and everyone is trying to crack the code.”
And content has become a concern and was discussed as part of an earlier panel about international co-production. Asked about what kind of hurdles American filmmakers have for co-productions in terms of content, Maio Xiaotian, president of China Film Co-Production Corp., dismissed it. “Things are changing,” he said. “There is no problem with content.”
However, that would be news to Sony Pictures which found out otherwise when China rejected Ghostbusters because ghosts are spirits of the dead which they don’t believe in in the Middle Kingdom. Doubtful any films would be made about the Dalai Lama either.
Mark Lazarus, head of creative and acquisitions of Arclight Films Australia, noted that there are challenges with content when producing a film that will also play well in the China marketplace. For instance, he said, “Don’t put lions inside. They can only go outside, right guys?” he asked his Chinese panelists who just smiled politely. Then he told the audience: “Don’t view it as an obstacle, view it as an opportunity.”
Nellie Andreeva contributed to this report.