Chinese companies have been quick to claim their share of Oscar glory since Sunday’s ceremony, despite an awards season that largely shut out films from or about Asia, including “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Shoplifters.”
Alibaba Pictures, the heavily loss-making film financing and production arm of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, is busily talking up its involvement in best picture winner “Green Book.” The production company boarded the movie as an investor alongside Participant Media, Dreamworks Pictures and Amblin Partners (of which Alibaba is a minority owner) last summer. The film was nominated for five Oscars and won three Sunday, including best original screenplay and best actor in a supporting role. It will hit Chinese theaters on Friday.
“Even though Alibaba Pictures is a relatively new entrant into Hollywood, we have a track record of choosing quality projects that not only have high entertainment value, but also have positive messages we believe in,” said Zhang Wei, president of Alibaba Pictures. The company also made investments in two other awards contenders, “Capernaum” and “On the Basis of Sex.”
Another Chinese player, Perfect World Entertainment, which has interests stretching from games to movies, claimed its share of reflected glory with “BlacKkKlansman” (six nominations, including one win in the adapted screenplay category) and “First Man” (four nominations, including one win for best visual effects). Both were co-funded by Perfect World through its five-year finance deal with Universal Pictures.
China’s propaganda apparatus has gone a step further, including several Oscar winners that have Chinese involvement of some kind as examples of Chinese excellence. On Monday, China’s state-owned news agency Xinhua pronounced Pixar-produced “Bao” a Chinese-centric Oscars triumph.
“The short is written and directed by Chinese-born Canadian director Domee Shi,” who, Xinhua helpfully explained, “is the first woman and first Chinese writer and director of a Pixar short.” The news agency noted that “Bao” beat “One Small Step,” a “Chinese-American short film, directed by Zhang Shaofu…[which] tells the story of a young Chinese-American protagonist who dreams of being an astronaut.” In the documentary category, Xinhua claimed Chinese success through winner “Free Solo,” directed by Jimmy Chin and Elisabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and through nominee “Minding the Gap,” directed by Chinese-American Liu Bing.
While there is much celebration on Chinese social media that “Bao” – a touching, realistic story about Chinese food and family – won such a high-profile accolade, several nationalistic state media reports champion a narrative that the wins, despite originating in other countries, are wins for China itself. The reports play up an old but recently much more prominent idea that people with Chinese heritage all over the world are connected to China by their ethnic identity. “Each of them is connected to China in its own way,” said Xinhua.
“It is a remarkable success given [U.S. President] Trump’s relentless China bashing,” said another commentator.
Beyond the rhetoric, however, there is increasing industrial synchronization between Hollywood and China. “The 91st Academy Awards can be viewed as the starting point for a new period of growing influence for China in the international film industry,” said Xinhua. The assertion is only inaccurate in that the movement quietly started several years ago.
The current dynamics are subtly different from those made in the 2012-2016 period, when Chinese companies were making aggressive and highly visible moves at the corporate level, like Alibaba and Wanda’s serious discussions about buying a piece of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Wanda bought Legendary Entertainment and unsuccessfully bid $1 billion for Dick Clark Productions. Video platform Le Vision/Le Eco made lavish slate announcements in Hollywood as recently as 2016, before gravity and Chinese regulators dragged them back to reality.
However, what has replaced that five-year surge of Chinese mad money has been a quieter drive to invest, learn, and integrate China into Hollywood. The initiative has been conducted by a smaller number of companies – Alibaba Pictures, Tencent, and Perfect World – which each have long-term game plans and have quietly opened offices in L.A.
Perfect World’s deal with Universal is largely a passive investment, but the company is simultaneously behaving like a Hollywood indie and developing its own material and scripts. (In China, Perfect World is further partnered with Hollywood names Village Roadshow and WME in Perfect Village Entertainment, a local production venture.)
“Both luck and persistence are very important. Alibaba Pictures will do everything in its power to support every young director to go global and vie for the Oscars,” said chairman and CEO of Alibaba Pictures Fan Luyan.