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Hollywood Executives Flock to School to Learn Chinese for Business Opportunities

The offices of Wink Animation are on the ninth floor of a sleek office tower in Burbank. The conference room affords a sweeping view of the Disney lot and, behind it, the hills of Griffith Park.

On a recent morning, all work in the office grinds to a halt. A young Chinese woman in a green skirt and a white top presents a series of head shots to the class.

“Ta shuai ma?” she asks, holding a picture of Brad Pitt to see if students think he’s handsome.

“Shuai,” the students answer in the affirmative.

She then presents an image of singer Justin Bieber and repeats the question. Amid chuckles and groans, a student offers, “Yi dian dian” — Bieber is “a little bit” handsome.

This is the bleeding edge of Hollywood’s cultural exchange with China, the world’s second-biggest entertainment market. Chinese companies are pumping billions of dollars into Hollywood acquisitions and studio slates, while the expanding Chinese middle class creates a golden opportunity for growth. Though Chinese is a notoriously difficult language for Westerners to learn, some in Hollywood are giving it a stab. And Chinese schools are sprouting up to help unlock the keys to the Middle Kingdom.

Students learn to identify symbols at the Chinese Language Academy.
Damon Casarez for Variety

The classes at Wink Animation — two hours every Thursday morning — are run by Chinese Language Academy of Los Angeles. Ysabella Chen, a former Mandarin instructor and interpreter for members of Congress, founded the company in 2013, seeing an opportunity to target corporate clients eager to do business in China.

For classroom instruction, Chen typically charges about $24 per student per hour, though corporate rates vary. She also has VIP clients — top-level executives, including one at Netflix — who prefer one-on-one courses to accommodate their busy schedules.

At first, her students came from the world of manufacturing and trade. But in short order, she began to see a number of entertainment industry clients — including actors and producers hoping to build their careers in Beijing. And she pounced.

“More and more students want to learn because a lot of investment’s coming from China,” Chen says. “There are more co-production projects, and many want to travel to China to get opportunities, or their company is purchased by a Chinese company.”

Business has been so good that two years after Chen launched her school, one of her own teachers, Gloria Zhang, quit to launch Masters of Chinese Language Academy. And Zhang quickly zeroed in on Hollywood.

On a slick website, she highlighted big corporate clients such as Disney and featured testimonials from a Hollywood producer named Steve Smith.

“The best Chinese classes ever!” Smith raved. “I highly recommend MCL Academy to you! You will get the best learning outcomes at MCL Academy!” However, something was amiss with MCL Academy. Smith appears not to exist. His picture on the website is actually that of Christopher Knee, a wellness expert based in Ottawa, who says via email that he has never heard of the school.

Chen fumes about Zhang’s disloyalty, accusing her of stealing her curriculum. She even hired a lawyer and threatened to file a copyright infringement lawsuit. Zhang could not be reached for comment, and MCL now appears to be out of business. But the fierce rivalry between them demonstrates just how high the stakes to snag big Hollywood clients are.

“There are more co-production projects, and many want to travel to China to get opportunities, or their company is purchased by a Chinese company.”
Ysabella Chen

Lucy Liao, who runs the North American Chinese Education Center in Van Nuys, says she has students from Disney and Nickelodeon, along with a fair number of singers and actors who want to work in China. “Some had to move there for a year or two, and before they moved to China they came to me,” she says. “Some might go for a month or two — they don’t need to know much, just ‘Hi, hello,’ and how to ask for directions.”

Are the classes worth it? Language experts say there’s really no way that picking up a smattering of Mandarin will magically open doors in Beijing. The U.S. State Dept. estimates it takes 2,200 class hours to achieve proficiency in the language. That means a student would need five hours of practice daily for about seven months before becoming proficient.

Peter Shiao, the CEO of Asian-American production and finance company Orb Media, splits his time between Beijing and L.A. He says many American expats in China are now becoming more serious about picking up Chinese — even if fluency is probably not in the cards.

“It goes a long way to be able to string a few words together,” he says. “It lets your prospective partners know that you’re committed.”

Wink is a rare case in which an entire firm decided to learn Chinese together. The company — which is entirely funded by Shanghai-based conglomerate Huayi Bros. — aims to straddle the cultures of Hollywood and China, and eventually produce content that will resonate with a global audience.

Many of its top personnel, including CEO Joe Aguilar, have come from Oriental DreamWorks, a landmark collaboration between American and Chinese partners, and most of the U.S.-based employees have spent a good amount of time in China.

And yet, basic communication is often a struggle. Wink is developing animation projects, as well as live-action films with animated characters, for the Chinese market. Scripts are often submitted in Mandarin and translated for the English-speaking executives. Meetings are run in both languages, with bilingual executives doing much of the interpretation.

“It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible,” Aguilar says. “You have to have people you trust.” Soon after the company launched, in 2016, the L.A. team decided it would be good to try to learn Chinese.

Markus Manninen, the company’s creative director, says the goal is not to be fluent, but rather to find a way to connect with Wink’s creative team. “It’s all about relationships,” he says. “We want to be able to approach these people we’re working with and connect with them on a personal level.”

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