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Dick Cook Still Charting a Vast China Strategy

Using your brand as the host of a big conference in China does not necessarily mean that you have made it in to Chinese film industry. In the case of former Disney chief Dick Cook, it appears to mean that he is on the way.

Cook, his Dick Cook Studios, and a clutch of Middle Kingdom allies this week put their names to the China-U.S. Motion Picture Summit. It was a bridge-building film conference graced by the likes of Paul Haggis, Alfonso Cuaron, animation great Don Hahn, top Chinese director Lu Chuan and Desen Media producer Ann An, as well as senior Chinese government figures.

All in all, it was a massive display of kudos. Though quite who was doing who the bigger favor remains unclear.

At present Cook is unwilling or unable to give precise answers about strategy, the timetable or how many movies DCS intends to produce.

Cook, who operates with grace, while undoubtedly under pressure,  says his alliance with the state-backed CITIC Guoan group, first unveiled in principal in April last year, is “strategic, not just financial.” And it appears that ultimately the China wing of his corporate plan has the potential to be vastly bigger than the U.S. end.

Right now things are still small, and mostly U.S.-based. Dick Cook Studios has some 15 or 16 staff, including well-known entertainment lawyer Peter Dekom and former Disney head of production Bruce Hendricks. Others include Li Lijun (exec VP, China) and Jonathan Bollier (VP, business development and planning,) though none are as yet based full time in China.

Cook says that the April 2015 announcement has now been followed with a firm contract and that CITIC Guoan is providing $150 million of “committed equity capital.” That is for Dick Cook Studios, which will make movies aimed at “playing around the world.”

The Chinese unit, Dick Cook Studios China will be structured as a joint venture and financed separately. Cook said that the DCS money is not contingent on the opening of DCS China or making movies in the Middle Kingdom, but is “part of the deal.”

Even after three years, Cook is still in the process of raising further finance for both parts, DCS and DCS China, and he is still defining the strategy. “The plan is written in wet clay,” Cook admitted. “We need to be mobile and keep adapting to the marketplace.”

One major tranche of finance for DCS could come from Khazanah Nasional Berhad, the Malaysian state-backed investment fund which among other things has bankrolled the Pinewood Iskandar Studios where “Marco Polo” was recently shot. Cook said that the Khazanah cash had been held up by domestic political issues in Malaysia and that it should come through in the next month. Industry sources have told Variety that the sum could be in the order of $60 million. Cook did not dispute the figure but said it could be larger or smaller.

Another piece of Chinese funding may arrive imminently, from Hangzhou-based Film Carnival, but Cook and team were unable to go ahead with a signing ceremony scheduled for the morning after the conference.

The scope of the China operations could be vast. Cook is looking at content production that includes film, TV and streaming product. DCS China aims to develop and produce its content, and is known to have approached U.S. sales agents and libraries with a view to acquiring intellectual property for remake in China. Development is in-house for the moment. “We are doing a lot ourselves, but we will need help,” Cook said.

Cook says that the mantra is to produce content for Chinese audiences first, with a pragmatic approach to exporting. “We want to allow it to grow rather than be presumptuous,” said Cook. “And we will build up to what we need. There is no quota.”

More ambitiously, Cook says that distribution “is a core competency of” the DCS China operation. That is a route that is largely off-limits to most U.S. companies, including the Hollywood majors. But it is one that can be opened by a Chinese partner, especially one as vast and powerful as CITIC.

DCS China is also looking at ancillary activities, consumer products and mobile, Cook confirmed. Other avenues being pursued may include studios and even theme parks. Together those have the potential to cost vastly more than the $150 million so far raised for the U.S. business. “There will be other Chinese companies joining DCS … some will be familiar names, as well as some others (less so),” Cook said. Allies on display at the conference included the China Film Association, the Beijing Film Academy and Film Carnival.

“This venture is important to CITIC and complementary to their range of businesses,” said Cook.

The conference venue gives an idea of where it could all go. The event was held on a vast tract of land owned by CITIC. The Grand Epoch City site an hour South East of Beijing has a collection of 20 year old forts, mansions and halls that look like they are centuries older. Today some buildings house hotels and conference rooms. Wine produced in one of CITIC’s own vineyards was served at a post conference banquet for speakers and other VIPs.

CITIC appears to have designs on a turning the estate into some kind of movie facility and in the margins of the conference it showed models and posters for the ‘CITIC Guoan Film Production Base.’ The modern fashion in China would be to pitch that as a mixed media, residential and leisure complex. Similar developments are being built in Wuxi, Tianjin and by Wanda in Qingdao.

And there is no doubt that red carpet events with Hollywood celebrities can fill hotel rooms, sell apartments — and bottles of wine.

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