Zhang Zhao, the former CEO and chairman of Le Chuang Entertainment, previously known as Le Vision Pictures, died of cancer on Wednesday in the early afternoon in Beijing. He was 58.
Known as a businessman with an artist’s temperament, Zhang was one of China’s most influential film execs thanks to a storied career in which he laid the foundation for much of the country’s industry as it stands today. He successively founded Enlight Pictures in 2006 and Le Vision Pictures in 2011, going on to sign a roster of big-name directors to the latter that included Zhang Yimou, Lu Chuan, Tsui Hark and Guo Jingming.
As a producer, he was best known for his work on Zhang Yimou’s Matt Damon-starring US-China co-production “The Great Wall,” family drama “Coming Home,” and arthouse actioner “Shadow,” as well as Guo’s infamous, lucrative saga of the young and beautiful, “Tiny Times.”
“In his life and his career, Zhang Zhao embodied, the passion, optimism and devotion to filmmaking and filmmakers that has propelled the Chinese film industry to new heights during these early years of the 21st century,” veteran China-based executive and film producer Ellen Eliasoph told Variety. “While unreservedly supporting artistic excellence, ZZ, as we called him, used his sharp business acumen to build new platforms and pioneer new distribution and marketing techniques. It was a great privilege to work with ZZ. He will be sorely missed.”
Other Chinese industry players, including many of the directors who worked with him, expressed their grief in public social media comments Wednesday.
“I was shocked to hear as we finished shooting that Zhang Zhao had passed away, and can’t help but grieve! The last time I saw him before leaving Beijing, I was still listening to him speak passionately about movie projects – it’s as if it were just yesterday!” wrote director Zhang Yimou on social media through his studio’s official account. He spoke of the producer as “a person who truly loved cinema,” lamenting that while his “lofty aspirations still remain, his great goals were tragically never fulfilled.”
Chen Sicheng, helmer of the “Detective Chinatown” franchise, posted: “Brother Zhang Zhao, go well! The idealist’s return journey home must be one that’s warm and bright.” Lu Chuan (“Kekexili: Mountain Patrol”; “Born in China”) posted a series of crying emojis.
Veteran producer Peter Loehr, who worked with Zhang on “The Great Wall” and “Coming Home,” first met him in 1995, when Zhang was an aspiring director just back from studies in the U.S.
“I think his background as a creative person was the bedrock of who he became. Zhang Zhao was truly passionate about this crazy industry – as a lot of people are – but on top of his passion was heaped generosity, honesty and a consistent willingness to do what is right by those he worked with,” the ex-CEO of Legendary East and former managing director of CAA in China told Variety. He reminisced about working together on a music video for the Chinese punk band The Flowers in the late ’90s. “[Zhang] was an absolute original and will be deeply and sorely missed.”
Born into a family of cadres, with a father who was an expert working on nuclear submarine research, Zhang faced pressure as a young man to go into the sciences despite his interest in the arts, according to China media reports. After his parents’ passing, he went to the U.S. to study philosophy and film.
He joined Shanghai Film Group in 1996 after he returned to China, and was involved in film and TV productions there as an actor and director, appearing in fare like the little-known 2001 sci-fi film “Space Rescue.”
But in 2003, he shifted his career from the creative to the business side of cinema by joining Enlight Media as its art director. In 2006, he encouraged the company to found Enlight Pictures and became its president. It soon became one of the industry’s leading players thanks to his thinking on how to combine product, distribution and promotion in ways that were new for China’s still-fledging studio system at the time.
After meeting LeEco founder Jia Yueting, he founded the now-embattled tech firm’s entertainment division Le Vision Pictures in 2011, serving as CEO and chairman. He built the company up from the rookie new outfit on the block to one of the country’s five largest privately held film companies known as one of the country’s first “internet era film companies” — but its fate was unfortunately tied to LeEco’s.
LeEco was enmeshed in turmoil beginning in 2016 after an overly ambitious expansion, with Jia himself resigning in 2017 just before authorities froze his and the company’s assets. He was eventually put on a government blacklist for credit defaulters.
Zhang stuck it out there even beyond Jia, guiding Le Vision Pictures through LeEco’s darkest time and remaining at the helm all the way until June 2019, when he stepped down for “personal reasons.” (In early 2018, the company rebranded as Le Chuang Entertainment. It is now under the wing of majority stakeholder Sunac, the Hong Kong-listed property developer which invested $3 billion to bail out LeEco at the height of its troubles.)
Jia said the sudden news of Zhang’s passing left him “shocked, sad and heartbroken.”
“I’m grateful to him, and will always remember him,” he wrote. “He lived for the movies; everything running through his veins was movies, and his obsessive passion for cinema inspired reverence in people. Although his aspirations were not fully realized, I believe he’ll still continue to chase his dreams in heaven.”
After leaving Le Chuang, Zhang signed on as vice president of Fosun Group and CEO of its film and TV division. He resigned less than a year later in May 2020 to strike out entirely on his own, revealing in an interview just weeks before his passing that he had founded his own start-up — remaining active, industrious and ambitious up to his last breath.
Corporate filings show that he founded Dongyang Jupin Films in June 2020. It recently completed its first round of financing, with investors including Heli Chenguang Group, Beijing Hualu Baina Film, and Hangzhou-based equity investment management company Aqua Ventures. Li Li, the founder of Heli Chengguang, was a close collaborator of Zhang’s who had worked with him on “Coming Home” and “Tiny Times.”
Zhang Yimou will act as the head of his colleague’s funeral committee, which counts influential film and business execs among its members, including producers Han Sanping and Ren Zhonglun, writer Liu Heping, Enlight Media chairman Wang Changtian, Sunac Culture chairman Sun Zheyi, and Jia Yueting.
“Every time I saw him, emaciated, my heart ached: he ceaselessly, persistently gave his all for cinema, at any cost, living for cinema, dying for cinema, exhausting his life force for cinema. Would he have lived a bit better if there were no such thing as cinema?” wondered Wang in a moving tribute. “My friend [Zhang] would say that he hoped to engrave the words ‘son of the movies’ on his tombstone, but I think these words are already engraved on the hearts of all who knew him. Goodbye, Zhang Zhao.”