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U.S.-China Summit: Janet Yang Optimistic Despite Industry, Political Woes

If American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is to be taken at his word, the Asia Society’s U.S.-China Entertainment Summit taking place Tuesday in Los Angeles could be a short meeting. Pompeo this week said that the U.S. would oppose China “at every turn.”

Janet Yang, noted producer, and chair of the summit, says there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of cross-Pacific business relations. And that the growing list of obstacles provides more reason to talk.

“So much seemed unpredictable three months ago. It is wonderful that we should be doing this now,” she said. “There is actually a much bigger bridge now between the U.S. and China, and people to people connections, than there was a few years ago. That didn’t happen in my generation.”

The list of problem areas seems only to have grown in the past months. At the entertainment industry level, they include: worrying signs of a new box office slowdown in China; significant confusion in the movie production sector as the Chinese industry resets itself after the Fan Bingbing scandal and related tax issues; and regulatory uncertainty that has followed the changed status of the State Administration of Press Publishing, Radio, Film, and Television. At the political level, the tit-for-tat tariffs and trade battle and pushback against Chinese military are in danger of becoming a new Cold War. Certainly, comments like Pompeo’s are not encouraging.

Yang’s sunnier outlook, however, comes from a more grounded and pragmatic understanding that people adapt to new circumstances and businesses evolve. “The circumstances may seem dire, but things always happen to ameliorate them.”

She acknowledges that Chinese companies are no longer falling over themselves to pump money into Hollywood through corporate acquisitions and that many companies have been bruised as a result. But she says that leaves the ones left standing in a better place.

“This has been the year when we’ve seen the most successful U.S.-Chinese co-productions,” Yang says. That is a reference to “The Meg,” which grossed over $140 million in both China and North America. But she includes in that analysis “Crazy Rich Asians,” which is not a co-production, but is set in a Singaporean-Chinese milieu.

The Summit will feature a case study analysis of “The Meg” as well as “Asians” producer John Penotti as part of a discussion on whether relations have hit a Great Wall.

Yang suggests that China’s rise has looked fragile at other times in recent history. But the economy has defied the naysayers and continued to grow. And growth of the entertainment industry has outstripped it, as an ever larger proportion of the population joins the middle classes and increases its disposable income.

“Conditions seem dire, but in practice they are not so dire. The things that seem like difficulties people find a way around. Chinese people are so resourceful,” Yang says. She credits the growth of the private sector for part of that strength. “Market forces are now so overwhelming. China no longer has a completely planned economy. Technology is playing a (growth) role too.”

At the same time Yang acknowledges that the Chinese entertainment business – and by extension U.S.-Chinese entertainment relations – have “entered a new phase.” She dates its beginning earlier in 2018, though with its roots in the Chinese government interventions of 2017.

“There will be less bombast.. no 10-picture deal announcements,” says Yang. “But there will be more detail, more nuance.”

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