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China Plugs Reality Into Great Wall

E! founder sees gold in worldwide Sino format

BEIJING — Television producer Larry Namer, who co-founded E! Entertainment Television, spends most of his time in Beijing, working on a slate of projects longer than the Great Wall. He’s pushing Western formats in China, or increasingly, developing Chinese formats he thinks will work globally. He’s even got a film project percolating.

Namer likes to go where the challenges are. He moved to Russia in the early days of its conversion to capitalism, and this sense of opportunity has brought him to China, where he has set up Metan Development Group and its Beijing partner company Mei Tian, the latter of which has working partnerships with more than 50 TV stations in China, producing the weekly entertainment news magazine “Hello! Hollywood.” It’s poised to debut sitcom “Return to Da Foo Tsun,” which features a talking donkey.

When Namer gets tired of the pollution and the stress of the capital, he heads to Shanghai, but Beijing is where the action is.

Over lunch in one of the city’s top Japanese eateries, Namer talked to Variety ’s Clifford Coonan about his projects, the reason it’s better to bring Chinese formats West than the other way around, and how it’s gotten a lot easier to get his Chinese crews into Hollywood premieres.

Clifford Coonan: Two of the latest projects you are working on are Chinese formats.

Larry Namer: We’ve launched Web-TV sitcom “Planet Homebuddies,” a look at the trend among China’s white-collar youth who live and work at home. The six-part series debuted online on China portals Youku and iQiyi, and reaches more than 212 million and 300 million unique monthly viewers, respectively. It kicked off the week of Feb. 8 to coincide with the weeklong Chinese New Year celebration.

(But) things are done differently here. (The show) goes on the air, though they haven’t told what time yet. It’s the way they do stuff. They have their way of working, and they follow that. That’s 70 episodes finished. It’ll be 35 hour-long episodes on CCTV 8, and it’s already been chopped and approved.

CC: What’s it been like putting these two shows together?

LN: The whole process is really fun for me, working with writers, trying to convince them that even though “Return to Da Foo Tsun” has a donkey that talks, we don’t have to train a donkey that talks.

CC: You’ve worked in many markets around the world. Is localizing formats something you enjoy?

LN: Adapting U.S. formats is interesting, but at this point, I probably know more about China than anyone in the U.S. If I can get a great original format, not only is it a great business proposition, it’s actually something I can get done.

People are paying for formats here now. Look at “The Voice” (which is a Chinese hit). I just bought a format out of the Ukraine — it must be the first time someone’s bought a format out of Ukraine, but looking at what will work in China, you got to go beyond the U.S. — called “Go Dance,” where these little cities compete to become the dance capitals of Ukraine. Go outside of Beijing and Shanghai, and I can see that working in China at an audience level and working at a regulatory and government level. It’s a celebration of everything Chinese. Psy could come in to teach them “Gangnam Style.” Get Paula Abdul, get your will.i.am’s in. Each year, some city will be the dance capital of China.

CC: The localization thing doesn’t always work.

LN: They tried to do “MasterChef” here by simply re-creating how it is in the U.S. or Australia without making it a local production. It didn’t work. With “The Voice,” they hit it.

We think bringing formats in is one thing. The other is using the production economics of China to come up with things to take back the other way; that’s where the big money is. If you hit one, they become billion dollar properties. I can pilot things here for one-tenth of what I can in the U.S. The prices are still cheap here compared to the West.

With “Homebuddies,” they started out with my idea, threw out the parts that were too Western, and came up with something really cool. The casting is great. And we even got licensing legally. We found a piece of music from Danny Wilde of the Rembrandts, who wrote the theme song from “Friends.” I think we’ll have a cachet here. You can do stuff on the Web here that you can’t do anywhere else, because of the sheer size.

CC: Tell me about the Elite reality modeling show, which is in pre-production right now.

LN: This is not “America’s Top Model.” Elite has been doing this model search for 30 years, and a lot of the top models have come out of that process. They have scouts; it’s like scouting talent for a football team. I guarantee there has not been one mother in China who’s ever aspired for her daughter to be a model. So the whole thing of modeling and fashion as a career choice is new here, and it’s fun to explore that.

CC: What’s it like working in China?

LN: In the U.S. you have the studios and the networks. Here in China, it’s simpler to do stuff. But on the other hand, China — sometimes you want to bang your head against the wall, and go, “What the hell.”

There are a lot more (Hollywood) people coming here, particularly on the movie side. Three years ago, I’d go to the studio (for a premiere) and say I need to get my crew on the red carpet for(“Hello! Hollywood”). The studios would say, “Larry we love you, but who cares about China?” But now they are saying, “You think you can cover our movie for China?” It’s gone from 2% of the box office to a serious chunk of box office. People have woken up. It’s a significant movie market and you’ve got to pay attention.

(Still), there are a tremendous amount of misconceptions and naivete. People think it’s like Hollywood and Australia and London. You hear all the war stories, people doing things they would never do in the U.S., people with no understanding of how things work. I get people asking me how to get their shows approved — people with no conceptions (of how China works). And you thank God they don’t understand it, because we have a real business here.

Most don’t have the patience.

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