Alibaba Pictures Boss Sets Out Technology First Vision of Film Industry

Yu Yongfu Alibaba Pictures
Imaginechina via AP Images

Despite having invested in Chinese and Hollywood movies, Yu Yongfu, chairman of Alibaba Pictures, does not want to be confused with a conventional film producer or distributor.

“We set out to be a service provider,” said Yu, who joined the film industry late last year and is attending the Shanghai International Film Festival for the first time. “We are considering renaming ourselves as Alibaba Pictures Infrastructure.”

Yu, whose own background is in finance and technology, took a top-down view of the movie business and compared the film industry with that of venture capital investment. Both are capital-intensive, and both have limited talent pools and offer high-risk, high-reward prospects. But film is driven by emotions and audiences’ emotional responses.

Bearing that in mind, Yu said it is Alibaba Pictures Group’s role to become a platform that improves industry efficiency and develops young talent. “We are not your competitor; we are your partner,” Yu said to content companies involved in production and distribution.

Alibaba Pictures was established three years ago when Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba bought listed company ChinaVision Media. It has since made high-profile Chinese and international talent deals – including Peter Chan Ho Sun, Wong Kar-wai and Steven Spielberg – and co-invested in a slate of movies.

However, since Yu, who also heads Alibaba Digital Group, came on board in the second half of last year, he has sought to re-position the company and to align it with other parts of the Alibaba group.

Throwing out jargon such as “precision publishing,” “big data” and “ecosystems,” Yu explained that Alibaba boasts over 500 million monthly active users for e-commerce. The Alibaba Pictures-controlled Tao Piao Piao ticketing and film information platform boasts a similar number. “So far there is little overlap, which means we have large upside potential,” he said.

Yu cited two examples of how a tech- and service-driven Alibaba Pictures is able to grow revenues. He said that harnessing Alibaba’s data allowed it to increase theatrical box office in China for “A Dog’s Purpose” from a forecast RMB80 million ($12 million) to nearly RMB600 million ($86 million). “This was a low-budget film with no stars. We were able to access consumer spending patterns. That caused us to target pet owners, young women and people with young families,” he said.

Alibaba Pictures has also invested in a film project called “Three Lives.” Even though the movie has not yet been released theatrically, the company has spun off a TV series that is now playing on the Alibaba-owned video streaming platform Youku. “To date we have generated over RMB300 million ($43 million) of merchandise and other sales,” said Yu.

Alibaba Pictures also has a talent-incubation scheme, Plan A, while in Yulebao the group operates a mass-market film finance portal similar to crowd-funding.

Listed on the Hong Kong and Singapore stock exchanges, Alibaba Pictures has a market capitalization of $4.4 billion (HK$34 billion).

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