Last fall, Donald Tang was on the brink of moguldom. He had been wooing Chinese investors and Hollywood executives for years, positioning himself at a critical intersection. He had just acquired Open Road Films, which he would marry with IM Global to form the makings of a studio with a worldwide footprint.
The first major release on his watch would be “Marshall,” the biopic about the Supreme Court justice. Tang was uncommonly enthusiastic about it. It was, he told people, the greatest film he had ever seen and he improbably predicted it would be the highest grossing film of all time.
Open Road had been a modest company by Hollywood standards, trying to stay afloat in the turbulent distribution business by keeping costs in check. But for “Marshall,” Tang wanted an extravaganza. He planned pre-screenings at high schools in 17 cities, and addressed students at Compton High School. He invited Fortune 500 companies to screen the film for employees.
He set a lavish premiere for Oct. 2 at the TCL Chinese Theatre. But the night before, a gunman opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, killing 58 people. Open Road was forced to cancel the red carpet, though the screening went ahead in a somber mood.
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Two weeks later, the film opened to a dismal $3 million on 821 screens. Even worse, the film — though highly regarded by critics — failed to gain traction in the awards race. It was a rude introduction to the business, and it didn’t get better from there.
Less than a year later, Tang’s lenders have seized control of the company and forced Open Road into bankruptcy. The rapid rise and sudden fall of Tang’s media empire has critics and observers scratching their heads. The independent film business is notoriously difficult, and the landscape is littered with failures. But some are left to wonder if there ever any substance to Tang’s ambitions. Or was it, like a lot of China-Hollywood marriages, a confection of bromides and blind optimism?
“When he speaks, he speaks in riddles that make no sense,” says one former employee. “He has no real understanding of the basic fundamentals of the film business.”
Tang, who declined to comment for this story, grew up in Shanghai and came to the U.S. when he was 17. He eventually returned to China as a banker for Bear Stearns based in Hong Kong. When the company went under during the financial crisis, Tang decided to focus his attentions on the growing ties between China and Hollywood.
He was an advisor on the sale of AMC Theatres to the Dalian Wanda Group in 2012, and helped connect STX Entertainment with Huayi Bros. on an 18-picture slate deal in 2015. With his cultural fluency on both sides of the Pacific, he was well positioned as a go-between.
“You have to have a facilitator who has no ego, or a facilitator who really understands how both sides think,” Tang said at the UCFTI Expo in 2015. “It’s not an envious job.”
Tang sought to follow up his slate deal with STX with a deal for TV. But the transaction did not go through, leading to a falling out with STX.
At the time, several studios were beginning to land major Chinese investments. Fosun invested in Studio 8, and Hunan TV signed a deal with Lionsgate. IM Global, a foreign sales and production company, was looking for its piece of the action. It turned to Tang.
Tang saw an opportunity to become an operator, not just a facilitator, and began to envision a company that could rival STX. He cobbled together the investors on the failed STX TV deal, and acquired a controlling stake in IM Global.
From Hollywood’s perspective, the rap on Chinese investors is that they sometimes announce deals without the money in place, or fail to live up to terms of an agreement. Tang was not like that — the money materialized, and for a time things appeared to be going well. He acquired Chaotic Good Studios, a company that aimed to bring an analytical approach to the development of franchises.
But things started to sour as Tang negotiated the purchase of Open Road, the faltering distributor co-owned by AMC and Regal Entertainment. IM Global had avoided the domestic distribution business, seeing it as a money pit. The company’s founder and CEO, Stuart Ford, was adamantly opposed to the deal.
Tang overruled Ford’s objections and forced him out, in a move that IM Global insiders say was especially underhanded.
“It came from nowhere,” says a former employee. “It was just bad business.”
Soon thereafter, Tang hired veteran executive Rob Friedman to run the combined company, which was rechristened Global Road. This came as a surprise to Tom Ortenberg, the CEO of Open Road, who exited the company within months. Luke Ryan, the CEO of Chaotic Good, also left the company less than a year after the acquisition.
“It’s really hard to coordinate that many acquisitions,” another former employee says. “It was a pretty ambitious goal that required a lot of money.”
Under Friedman, Global Road began to staff up aggressively. At the Berlin Film Festival in February, Friedman told distributors the company would spend up to $1 billion over the next three years, ramping up to 15-20 wide releases a year by 2020.
Tang took two floors of office space in a Century City tower, which was to be extensively remodeled with an interior staircase. During construction, employees worked in temporary quarters on the 4th floor.
In meetings, Tang would focus on the big picture — the relationship with China, the prospects for ancillary revenues — while leaving the day-to-day to Friedman. He also went on a road show, pitching investors in an effort to raise $200 million in fresh capital. In one interview at the U.S. China Entertainment Summit, Tang talked up his “dual core strategy” and described the company as “a whole dragon.”
“The dragon head is North America. The dragon tail is China,” he said. “The dragon head cannot be cut off, because it’s the most powerful creator of any kind of premium content in the world. You have to massage it and feed it. You have to make it feel really good.. The tail is really fat. It’s really greasy. You have to really hang on to it, and you really have pay attention to it, otherwise it slips away, because it’s very slippery.”
But the company did not have strong financials to show, instead relying on its executives’ track records and a gauzy story of global integration.
“I think the goal was for it to look good as a deck they could show to Chinese investors,” says a former employee. “It became clear it was smoke and mirrors.”
The Chinese government has clamped down on overseas investment in the last two years, causing investors to become more careful and patient. Tang found that his initial investors, including China Media Capital, Tencent and Sequoia Capital’s Neil Shen, were wary of doubling down. Other investors were looking to the Chinese backers to make the first move.
Meanwhile, Open Road’s slate of films was failing to perform. “Midnight Sun” grossed $9.6 million domestically, while “Hotel Artemis” and “A.X.L.” fared even worse. But in the office, there was no sense of imminent disaster. New hires continued to come on board through the early summer. The first sign of trouble came in early August, when the studio pulled the September release of “City of Lies,” the Johnny Depp film about the murders of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur.
On Aug. 21, Friedman held a town hall meeting, at which he said the company was looking for a white knight investor. He warned there would be staff reductions if the money did not materialize soon. Bank of America seized control of the company, and the following week, the layoffs began.
The employees got no severance. Many feel betrayed, having placed their faith in Friedman and Tang without realizing how reckless they had been.
“You don’t staff up and hire 100 people when the money isn’t there,” says one former employee. “People are shocked and angry.”
Tang was not in the office as the company was taken over by its creditors, the employee said.
“His ass has been silent,” the employee said earlier this week. “Everybody thinks it’s very cowardly.”
Early Thursday, Open Road declared bankruptcy. IM Global is once again a separate entity and is not part of the filing.
Tang summoned the remaining staff for another meeting on Thursday morning, at which he apologized. He said the failure of the company was his fault and no one else’s, and he regretted missing the earlier town hall meeting. He blamed his absence on a “family emergency,” and said he was on a plane at the time.