Dan Mintz, the U.S. executive that is bidding for a $600 million slice of Taiwan’s Eastern Broadcasting Corp., has been able to pull off some pretty cool stunts. Among them Robert Downey rising from Beijing’s Forbidden City, airport meetings conducted in a limousine on the tarmac at Shanghai airport, and persuading Disney and Marvel to set up “Iron Man 3” as a U.S.-Chinese co-venture.
The bid for control of EBC is one of the New York-born executive’s ballsiest moves to date. The deal, Mintz himself and DMG (which stands for Dynamic Media Group, not Dan Mintz Group) are likely to come under an unprecedented degree of scrutiny.
For more than 20 years, since co-founding DMG as an advertising agency in Beijing, Mintz has been actively “playing the China card.” That has meant establishing high-level, long term relationships, or “Guanxi,” within China, long before the recent economic liberalization and current cultural services boom. Lately, as DMG has diversified into film, Mintz has acted as a bridge between Hollywood and the now flourishing and expansive Chinese movie industry.
For the EBC deal to be approved, Mintz is going to have to convince Taiwanese regulators that DMG is not a stalking horse for the Chinese government and that one of his founder partners in DMG is not going to be a part of it.
That’s because Taiwan (the Republic of China) and China (the People’s Republic of China) have interlocking economic relations, but diplomatic relations that are fragile at best. China has hundreds of missiles pointed at Taiwan, and the two presidents met for the first time in 60 years only last month, on neutral ground and with etiquette carefully toned down.
Taiwan does not allow mainland ownership of its media assets, and its competition and media regulators have already promised to give Mintz’s takeover bid an unflinching examination.
They have already pointed to the family connections between DMG co-founder Peter Xiao Wenge and the Chinese military. (The military has often acted in an entrepreneurial manner and has at times been behind other media companies in China, including the China Poly Group, which owns auction houses and cinemas as well as arms companies.) With that background Xiao has become a successful financier in China, and the largest shareholder in DMG.
Last year DMG was reorganized and split into two parts. Yinji Entertainment & Media (aka DMG Yinji), essentially the Chinese assets, was launched onto the Shenzhen stock exchange via a reverse takeover, with Xiao as its chairman. The split sidestepped another diplomatic problem, namely any suggestion that a listed mainland Chinese media firm might be controlled by Americans – something that the PRC does not currently permit.
The U.S.-assets remain privately held – under the name DMG Entertainment — and the two companies have a contractual co-operation arrangement, described as “a strategic partnership under the DMG master brand.” That may sound like a far-fetched piece of financial engineering, but is no more outlandish than the byzantine corporate structures, such as “wholly foreign owned enterprises” and “variable interest entities,” familiar to anyone investing in overseas-listed Chinese companies such as Alibaba or Baidu.
And so, as news of the EBC deal emerged, Mintz made it clear that the bid is being made in his private capacity, not by Yinji. He also revealed that he had preliminary meetings with Taiwan’s regulators and had put forward a simple case: “I’m not Chinese.” Since then, however, Mintz has gone into a regulatory quiet period and declined further approaches by Variety for comment.
The proposed deal is also ambitious from business and financial points of view.
In Taiwan’s mature and only slowly growing cable TV market EBC has a 23% share and generates NT$1.4 billion (US$45 million) of free cash (EBITDA) per year. Mintz’s bid represents nearly 15 times EBITDA, which should thrill Carlyle, the U.S.-based private equity group that has been trying to offload its 61% stake since 2013. Other deals in the sector have been done at a much lower 9-10 times EBITDA, according to Mike Savage at Media Business Asia and Vivek Couto, executive director at Media Partners Asia.
Mintz’s plan is to bring down that multiple by jacking up EBC’s profitability. He wants to do that by turning it into a “global powerhouse” for Mandarin-language content.
In a written statement sent to Variety last week, Mintz said: “The investment leverages on the tremendous growth potential of Mandarin content globally and the scale of EBC as Taiwan’s top TV platform with one of the largest Mandarin language TV networks in the world, with an international footprint in North America, a strong history and audience in Taiwan as well as across Asia-Pacific.
“In addition, as a media network EBC offers tremendous growth opportunities in digital, Mandarin-language content, premium content creation and distribution, which will become the anchor platform for ongoing global expansion (of Mintz’s businesses).”
He’s gone out on a limb before. Mintz first traveled to China in 1990 when he was a U.S.-based commercials director to scout locations for an ad shoot — without speaking a word of the language. After several more trips he set up DMG in 1993 with borrowed money in a foreigner’s only apartment complex.
He partnered with Wu Bing, a former gymnastics champion, turned actress and business executive, and with Chris Fenton, a Hollywood agent who had represented Mintz for several years at WME. Wu is now vice chair and GM of Yinji. Fenton now heads DMG’s U.S. operations.
After winning several ad contracts for FMCG companies including Kraft, Nabisco and Unilever, the company hit the big time with a high-profile, very-localized, TV campaign for Volkswagen, which was considered controversial at the time.
But brash showmanship, combined with an ability to get things done is a combination that can go a long way in China – especially for someone like Mintz who settled into China for the long term and has mastered the Chinese language as well as he has the art of the deal.
Mintz is therefore able to offer Chinese and American partners the kind of smarts and insight – in their own languages – that few others can. “Access and relevance” is a favorite Mintz mantra.
One masterful stroke was to become a minority investor in state-backed propaganda super-production “The Founding of a Republic” in 2009. It brought DMG goodwill and eased the company into the film business.
That was followed by hit romance “Go Lala Go” in 2010 and then by “Looper” and “Iron Man 3” which were both intended to be full co-productions, which would have escaped China’s film import quotas. They failed the local content test, just as China was tightening up the rules, and both ended up coming in as imports instead. Mintz has been quoted as saying that the official status matters little to him, and certainly “Iron Man 3” was a big hit – though his partners may have been less sanguine.
Other cross-Pacific film deals have followed. DMG invested in the disappointing Johnny Depp movie “Transcendence” (despite having Depp get out his guitar for fans on a promo visit to Beijing) and similarly has a piece of Alcon Entertainment’s “Point Break.” The film, which releases Dec. 4 has its premiere in China and is likely to be the last mainstream Hollywood film of the year to release in Chinese theaters.
The EBC deal, if approved, could bring a touch of much needed Mintz showmanship to the island, which is culturally rich, but has been something of a bystander as Chinese film and media companies have boomed. Taiwan’s media companies have often failed to live up to their potential and its TV scene has long been controlled by investment firms, rather than entertainment entrepreneurs.
Mintz believes he can unlock some of that cultural value at EBC, in the same way that another smart businessman Li Ruigang appears be trying with Hong Kong’s TVB.