Chinese Films Need Right ‘Syntax’ to Win Over Americans, STX CEO Robert Simonds Says

Robert Simonds
Eric Charbonneau/REX/Shutterstock

Collaboration between the Chinese and American film industries will continue to increase, but a gap still needs to be closed before Chinese stories and intellectual property win over audiences in America and the West, executives and financiers said during a conference in Beverly Hills on Saturday.

Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox, said during the C-100 Conference, that America’s multi-cultural roots have spawned films that appeal to audiences from varied backgrounds. Without that tradition, it’s more difficult for the Chinese to create films that appeal globally, said Gianopulos.

Robert Simonds, chairman and CEO of STX Entertainment, echoed a similar view, saying that Chinese films will begin to appeal to global audiences when they speak in a familiar cinematic “syntax” — with more traditional three-act structures and scene progression that will be easily recognizable in other nations.

The opinion of the two entertainment executives appeared to be shared by others speaking on the panel at the annual conference, organized by the Committee of 100, an organization of prominent Chinese-Americans from business, politics, media and other fields.

Another member of the “Hollywood & China” panel, East West Bank Chairman Dominic Ng, said he thought a key to enhancing the prospects of films from the Middle Kingdom in the U.S. could be the hiring of more Chinese-Americans to act as cultural and business ambassadors.

“They know this Chinese audience well. They know the American experience extremely well,” said Ng, whose bank has funded multiple films and industry deals. “Hopefully the smart executives will look at Chinese-Americans who can help make … these films.”

Ng said he hoped that films like “Great Wall,” created by Thomas Tull’s (and now Dalian Wanda’s) Legendary East and with distribution from Universal, will show the way for future productions. The film tells the story of the creation of China’s Great Wall, with acclaimed Chinese director Yimou Zhang, and starring a multi-national cast that includes Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe.

“It’s just a matter of time,” said Ng. “Co-production will get better.”

Gianopulos said he has been asked why more Chinese fables have not been made into films for a global audience. He said, for that to happen, the Chinese will have to be open to re-interpretation of their classics. “If you give this fable to Hollywood and ask them to make it for the world, by the time it comes back to China you might not recognize it,” Gianopulos said.

Donald Tang, the prominent Chinese-American investor who moderated the panel, asked whether there was a chance that the large Chinese investments in the American entertainment industry could be as ephemeral as past forays by the Japanese, French and others.

No way, said the panelists, including WME-IMG co-chief executive Ari Emanuel. He and others said the enormous growth of the Chinese market meant it would be a formidable presence for the long run.

“You see a lot of us saying we are moving our operations and opportunities to China,” said Emanuel, nothing that the situation was not comparable to past foreign investment in the U.S. His company is so intent on forming links to China, Emanuel said, that he has visited the country 10 times in the last three months. And he’s leaving for another visit on Monday.

And the growth from China shows no sign of slowing. Box office is up 50% in the first three months of this year, compared to the year prior. And, still, the average person in China goes to less than one film a year, compared to 3.5 visits a year by Koreans and four visits annually by Americans — one measure of the huge upside still to come, noted Gianopulos.

Another measure is the number of theaters in China. Though building cinemas rapidly, the nation still has a huge upside for growth — with only 23 theaters per million residents, compared to the 100 theaters per million residents in the U.S., Gianopulos said.

“The market is probably not even half the size it’s going to be,” agreed Emanuel, “so there are huge tailwinds.”

Jack Gao, the Dalian Wanda executive who oversees the Chinese giant’s film operations, said the Chinese conglomerate has been encouraged to do more business in the U.S. because its purchase of the AMC theater chain has been so successful. It picked up Thomas Tull’s Legendary Entertainment in January for $3.5 billion. The AMC deal “gave Wanda very strong encouragement to come into the U.S. market,” Gao said.

To those who complain that too much is being paid to lure American talent and expertise to China, Emanuel was unapologetic. The super-agent drew a big laugh from the crowd at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel when he said: “I don’t think talent costs going up is a bad thing. … It’s going to be uncomfortable for awhile.”

But the WME boss said that markets eventually find the right price for all things. He recalled a negotiation early in his career as an agent, with a Warner Bros. executive. When Emanuel complained that the deal was unfair, his elder told him: “Young man, fair is where we end up.” Emanuel said that philosophy should be applied to future dealings between the U.S. and China.