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

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.

More Film

  • 'How to Train Your Dragon: The

    'How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World' to Bow in China on March 1

    “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” will swoop into Chinese theaters on March 1, its Beijing-based promotion company He Song confirmed to Variety on Wednesday. The date puts its China release a week after its Feb. 22 debut in the U.S. and also pits it against “Green Book,” which has scored a China release [...]

  • Songs for Screens Powered by Mac

    Songs for Screens: Beyond 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' 2018 Was a Record Sync Year for Queen

    As “Bohemian Rhapsody” approaches a landmark $800 million at the global box office, another Queen milestone quietly took place in 2018. With appearances in nationwide campaigns for Amazon, Ram Trucks, Google, Peloton, Silk Almondmilk and many more, Queen’s music was licensed by more blue-chip brands than any other calendar year. And in the first few [...]

  • Sundance Film Festival Placeholder

    A Changing Film Market Raises the Pressure for Sundance Indies to Succeed (Column)

    Regretfully, I never go to the Sundance Film Festival anymore because I need to mind the editorial store back home, knowing that our crack team of reporters and critics will be filing great scoops and reviews while freezing their butts off (sorry!). I have lots of fond memories from the days when I frequented Park [...]

  • Jimmy Kimmel Oscars

    Will the Oscars Be a Hot Mess Without a Host?

    Who will host this year’s Oscars? With one month left until the telecast on Feb. 24, there’s still no definitive answer. Insiders tell Variety that the ceremony will likely buck the tradition of having a master of ceremonies. Instead, organizers have chosen to patch together a host-less show. That could mean a lot of airtime [...]

  • 2018 Sundance Film Festival - Egyptian

    Sundance Preview: Expect Political Moments and Few Costly Deals at 2019 Festival

    Zac Efron underwent a grueling physical transformation to play serial killer Ted Bundy in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” a drama premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this week. “I lost 13 pounds,” Efron says. To prepare for the biographical role, he rode a stationary bike for an hour in the mornings while binge-watching [...]

  • Mindy Kaling photographed by Victoria Stevens

    Mindy Kaling Created Her Own Opportunities (and Doesn't Plan on Stopping)

    Over the course of two hit sitcoms, a couple of best-selling books and some scene-stealing turns in Hollywood blockbusters such as “Ocean’s 8” and “Inside Out,” Mindy Kaling has cultivated an image as a kinder, gentler and more relatable star than most. On Instagram or Twitter, where she routinely shares parenting anecdotes and restaurant recommendations, [...]

  • Jimi Hendrix sound check Monterey Pop

    Film Constellation Adds ‘Show Me the Picture’ to Berlin Market Slate (EXCLUSIVE)

    London-based sales and financing house Film Constellation has added Alfred George Bailey’s feature documentary “Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall” to its Berlin market slate, ahead of the film’s SXSW premiere. Submarine Entertainment is handling distribution in North America. The film charts the life of American photographer James Joseph Marshall, whose work [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content