Ruigang to lead DWA Shanghai studio

Chinese media maven will have a key role in expanding DWA's footprint

Partnering with China Media Capital gave DreamWorks Animation more than just financial backing for its new Shanghai-based studio, as CMC topper and Chinese media maven Li Ruigang is expected to take a key leadership role at the new facility.

DWA is expected to announce the news this week during Chinese vice president and leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Los Angeles. With a reputation for an impressive list of contacts and the ability to navigate China’s murky regulatory waters, Ruigang, former head of DWA’s other partner in the pact — Shanghai Media Group — is a coup for DWA as it looks to bolster its biz in the territory.

Ruigang is widely credited with transforming SMG into one of the largest and most profitable state-run media companies, building strong relationships with major Hollywood players including News Corp., Universal, Sony, Viacom and Creative Artists Agency over the years.

For those congloms, Ruigang, who started his career as a TV reporter and documentary filmmaker, was the primary contact in China for execs like Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch to get their entertainment in front of the growing audience there. He’s also served as non-executive director of advertising giant WPP Group, helping advertisers enter the Chinese market.

SMG operates TV stations, pay TV and radio channels, theaters, music labels, newspapers, magazines, sports teams and their arenas, and websites and mobile ventures.

Ruigang left SMG in 2011 to fully join CMC, which SMG and China Development Bank formed in 2009. CMC recently signed a deal to acquire a controlling stake in several News Corp. media assets in China, including its Star China TV business, which included the Xing Kong and Xing Kong Intl. general entertainment channels, the Channel [V] music channel and the Fortune Star Chinese movie library, which has 757 Chinese-language titles.

Early Wednesday, the Financial Times reported that DreamWorks Animation had partnered with CMC and SMG to launch a China-based studio with plans of developing film, television and live stage productions for the Chinese market.

DWA has been planning such a venture since last year, when it hired Los Angeles-based recruitment firm RSR Partners to handle the headhunting duties (Daily Variety, Sept. 14, 2011).

While Ruigang will likely oversee the Shanghai studio for DWA and handle government negotiations, day-to-day duties will be overseen by other executives that have yet to be revealed. A recruiter is still on tap to identify candidates to serve as CEO, with Ruigang likely taking a larger leadership role.

DreamWorks already has been bolstering its presence in China, inking a deal with Youku.com, a Chinese YouTube of online videos to distrib its films, starting with the “Kung Fu Panda” pics. It also has promotional partnerships with local retailers like clothing chain Metersbonwe, which sells apparel featuring DWA characters.

Making a bigger move in China would make sense for DWA, whose “Kung Fu Panda” franchise was developed to appeal to that market. The original “Panda” was the first animated pic to earn more than 100 million yuan ($15 million) at the local box office there. Last summer’s “Kung Fu Panda 2,” which Par distribbed for DWA worldwide, established a new opening-day mark for a foreign release in China just a week after Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” set the record. “Panda” pic took in $18.5 million over its two-day weekend in May.

The film has earned $92 million in China since then. Altogether, it’s collected $492 million from foreign territories and $657 million overall.

A presence in China would enable DWA to tap into the growing B.O., which rose a 64% last year, earning $1.5 billion.

But given the way the Chinese government restricts how many foreign films can unspool there, DWA will still have to work with a local business to launch the studio and bypass the restrictions the way Legendary recently bowed Legendary East to produce a slate of live-action pics in the region.

DWA declined to comment.

(Clifford Coonan contributed to this report.)