Jack Ma, Spielberg team up to bring Hollywood to China

Mr Ma and Mr Spielberg at an event announcing the tie-up between their companies.
Mr Ma and Mr Spielberg at an event announcing the tie-up between their companies.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • It is a casting director's dream. Mr Jack Ma, China's richest man, and the highest-grossing Hollywood auteur of all time have struck a deal to work together to produce and finance films for the world's second-largest movie market.

Alibaba Pictures Group is buying a stake in Amblin Partners, the production outfit backed by Mr Steven Spielberg, to work together on production, marketing and distribution both globally and in China.

It is the latest in a spree of deals over the past two years intended to help United States studios tap what could soon be the world's largest box office, while hopefully imparting a little of that Hollywood movie-making magic to increasingly ambitious Chinese households.

The agreement with Mr Spielberg's storied studio marks Alibaba's and Mr Ma's most comprehensive production effort to date. 

The company has been selective so far, preferring to invest in select films such as the latest instalment of the Mission Impossible franchise, in return for an equity stake and the right to stream it across Internet giant Alibaba Group Holding's various online services.

"Among Chinese consumers, there is an increasing demand for premium global content," Mr Ma said in an e-mailed statement. "This collaboration can serve as a cultural bridge and have a positive impact on the next generation of Chinese consumers."

Alibaba Pictures will also name a representative to sit on the board of Amblin Partners, a content creation company formed by DreamWorks Studios, Participant Media, Reliance Entertainment and Entertainment One. Mr Spielberg is the chairman of Amblin Partners.

"We intend to make six to nine movies a year," Amblin Partners president and co-chief executive officer Jeff Small said last Sunday at a launch of the tie-up in a downtown Beijing skyscraper's ballroom.

China has been a focus for Hollywood studios in recent years as the US film market has stagnated. Last year, China's box office totalled US$6.8 billion (S$9.34 billion), up 49 per cent from the previous year, according to consulting firm Artisan Gateway.

The North American box office had its biggest year in 2015 at US$11.1 billion, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.  American studios have been looking to Chinese partners for funding and ways to maximise their revenue from a country that limits the number of foreign firms exhibited annually to 34.

Fellow Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin's Dalian Wanda Group has been among the most aggressive in its overtures. It bought Jurassic World co-producer Legendary Entertainment and has agreed to co-finance and market releases for studios including Sony Pictures in China. Wanda, now said to be eyeing Golden Globes showrunner Dick Clark Productions, also runs the world's biggest chain of movie theatres after buying AMC Entertainment. Other Chinese players investing in studios include Fosun Group and Huayi Brothers.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2016, with the headline 'Jack Ma, Spielberg team up to bring Hollywood to China'. Print Edition | Subscribe