Soft power: China’s Hollywood dreams not just about making money, says media tycoon Li Ruigang

Mainland media tycoon admits that China’s Hollywood deals are also about gaining influence and building soft power

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 January, 2017, 8:55am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 January, 2017, 10:57pm

China’s top media mogul Li Ruigang said the world’s second largest economy is using its massive market size to influence Hollywood’s way of thinking and how American film studios make movies.

“In US films nowadays you rarely see Chinese characters as bad guys. The scriptwriters hardly ever portray dodgy Chinese characters. Chinese don’t like it, of course,” Li, often called China’s Rupert Murdoch for his sprawling media and entertainment empire, told a panel on Wednesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The tycoon’s remarks come at a time when a Chinese buying spree of Hollywood assets, led by the country’s richest man Wang Jianlin, has prompted 16 US congressmen, worried about diminished national security, to call for a special government review on Chinese investments concerning media and other soft-power institutions.

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Wang, whose stable of companies already include Legendary Entertainment and Golden Globe Awards producer Dick Clark Productions, has voiced his interest in “all big six Hollywood studios”, including Paramount Pictures and 21st Century Fox, in potential billion dollar deals.

In the Davos panel discussion, Li suggested that the Chinese money flooding into the Western entertainment industry is “not only about purchases” but also about how to leverage capital to consolidate international resources.

“Recently we made a film which is based on a script from the US, but the lead actor is from Britain and the actress is Chinese ... it will be distributed globally,” Li said.

Over the past decade an influx of cash from Chinese billionaires into Hollywood has shaped filmmaking, and the allure of China as the world’s second largest box office has led US movie studios to portray Chinese characters with more depth and longer screen time.

A recent example is The Great Wall, a Sino-US co-production directed by Oscar nominee Zhang Yimou and starring Hollywood A-lister Matt Damon and Hong Kong star Andy Lau. The blockbuster costing US$150 million was backed by Wang’s Legendary Entertainment.

“China is using its market size to influence Hollywood’s way of thinking and how they make films,” Li noted.

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The 47-year-old chief executive of CMC Holdings recalled how his film business partnered with Hollywood giant Dreamworks Animation to churn out the blockbuster sequel Kung Fu Panda 3, which earned US$521 million in global movie ticket sales on a US$145 million budget.

“We made money, but we also acquired the global expertise.”

The Shanghai tycoon, who holds key stakes in mainland news groups such as Caixin Media, is also a vice chairman of Hong Kong broadcaster TVB and the boss of iconic Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers.

His footprint has long extended into America’s movie industry, with investments a few years ago in the China unit of widescreen theatre operator Imax Corp, as well as tie-ups with Dreamworks and Batman producer Warner Brothers Entertainment, with which he is also developing a Legoland theme park in Shanghai.

In Davos Li also hinted that mainland film regulators will loosen their grip on the number of foreign titles allowed for release in China.

“After China joined the WTO, our quota started with 20 to 30, but there will be 50, 60 or even 70 US films showing in China every year [in the future],” he said.