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AFM: China’s Huace Becomes Force on Global Film Scene

In the past two years, Zhejiang Huace has emerged as one of the most important new forces not only on the Chinese film and TV scene, but also on the international one.

Founded only 10 years ago by Zhao Yifang, the company — with roots in the independent TV business — had the backing of the provincial government of Zhejiang and the municipal government of Hangzhou, the same home town as e-commerce giant Alibaba.

These days the company stretches from TV production to feature film, and from artist management in China to theatrical distribution in South Korea. It has its own stock market listing, but also counts the backing of Baidu, the online giant built around China’s largest search engine and which also owns iQIYI.

Huace describes its strengths as being primarily in developing screenplays and distribution, rather than in production. That distribution capacity was recently highlighted when Huace boarded Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “The Assassin” for China release. The prestige picture is Taiwan’s foreign-language Oscar contender, but is a long way from Huace’s usual commercial fare, which has included an investment stake in John Woo’s “The Crossing,” and bankrolling of hit “Two Thumbs Up.”

While Huace has been smart in signing up acting and screenwriting talent to long-term deals, it has also been skillful at riding the changes within the contemporary film and TV landscape.

“A shift of the focus from creators to audiences is a vital characteristic of the ‘new generation,’ ” Zhao says.

The company caught international attention in late 2013 when it unveiled a $29.5 million, 26% investment stake in Zui, the comic book and online rights company headed by Guo Jingming, the geeky author turned movie director who had enjoyed blockbuster success with his “Tiny Times” franchise. With Zui also representing a collection of other new-media writers, Huace also came on board for five-year production deal.

At the time of that announcement, Huace made two things clear: its ambition, and its willingness to drive future growth from both organic expansion and acquisitions.

Earlier in 2013, the company paid $269 million, then the biggest deal of its kind, for Croton, a TV production firm that claims to be a big data pioneer.

The past year has seen a stepping up of Huace’s international activity.

In October 2014, Huace announced a $52 million pre-IPO investment in South Korea’s ambitious distributor Next Entertainment World (NEW), which has since gone into production.

At the recent Busan Film Festival, the two partners announced joint-venture Huacehexin, which will deliver two films per year. One of their first Chinese joint projects is chiller “The Phone,” pictured, which recently topped the Korean box office.

Last month Huace announced a deal with sales and financing company Arclight, and a development pact with “Batman” producer Michael Uslan.

Arclight and Huace will launch Aurora Alliance Films, which will develop, finance and produce a slate of co-productions at the rate of three films per year.

They estimate the combined production budgets at a hefty $300 million and said the first pictures under the new banner have already secured Hollywood directing talent: James McTeigue is in advanced talks to direct an untitled Chinese co-production being produced by Basil Iwanyk’s Thunder Road; Huace and Arclight are also working on “Safecracker,” written by Paul Staheli, to be directed by Gregor Jordan; and they are already partnered on action thriller “Lights Out.”

“The international demand for Chinese films is growing rapidly,” says Zhao. “It is a critical time for us to learn from Hollywood and make exceptional Chinese movies for global audiences.”

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