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Universal Expands China Ambitions As It Opens Beijing Office

HONG KONG — Universal is to step up movie co-production and consumer products sales in China, as it also expands co-distribution efforts.

The moves were announced by Universal Pictures boss Jeff Shell as the company formally opened a Beijing office.

“We have big ambitions here,” Shell told Variety.

Headed by veteran Disney executive, Joe Yan, who was hired in June, the new office will first take on the role of pitching and submitting the studios movies to the Chinese regulators.

Under a previous arrangement those duties had been served by a partnership with iconic Hong Kong producer-distributor Bill Kong (“Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” “Fearless”). While that arrangement has now come to an end, Shell said that Kong remains a good friend of the company and will work with the studio on its local films. Kong attended the opening ceremony on Monday.

The office will attempt to step up its co-marketing and distribution activities in China, alongside China Film Group, which remains the legal distributor of titles imported and intended for revenue sharing distribution.

“We will be working alongside China Film Group on ways to augment in-territory marketing, as we did earlier this year with ‘Despicable Me 2’,” said Shell. He said that the Beijing office now consists of ten staff and will rise to roughly when it is at full strength. China execs will also handle technical aspects such as subbing and sub-titling.

“Starting in the U.S. we have cemented our slate around big tentpole titles that are also attractive to China,” said Shell.

Shell said that he has high hopes that at least five of them will next year gain releases in China: Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” “Fast & Furious 7,” “Jurassic World,” “Minions” and climbing adventure “Into Thin Air.”

The office will take a leaf out of Disney’s play book in ramping up Universal’s consumer products in China.
“Disney has shown that consumer products and licensing can be the glue between its Shanghai theme park and its films. Having the right partners and the right licensing schemes can move products out of the realm of piracy,” said Shell. “Minions will be very big. We will lead off with that.”

Universal Parks & Resorts recently confirmed plans to invest in and open a theme park near Beijing that is scheduled to open in 2019.

Shell said that, as with the TV business, Universal intends to be in the business of marketing local film productions alongside its U.S.-made content.

Some of those, he believes can travel internationally. “We want to find stories and productions that can work in multiple territories,” said Shell, and indicated that they could range from the Chinese-made tentpoles of its existing partner Legendary East to much smaller pictures.

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