Chinese Character

The plot thickens

Why China’s movie impresario has sold out to Alibaba

Dong Ping w

Dong: inspired by the Weinstein brothers

Founded by the Weinstein brothers in 1979, Miramax started out with modest plans to produce and distribute independent movies with non-traditional stories. Many of these lower budget offerings were critically acclaimed but turned only small profits. It wasn’t until Disney’s $60 million takeover in 1993 that Miramax came up with its truly breakthrough production Pulp Fiction.

The Quentin Tarantino movie premiered in May 1994 at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the top prize, the Palme d’Or. Thanks to Disney’s marketing machine, Miramax’s strategy changed: no longer thinking small, it opened Pulp Fiction in 1,100 cinemas. It grossed more than $100 million in the US market and scored more than $200 million more worldwide.

The commercial success turned Pulp Fiction into a game changer. Major studios were forced to establish new divisions to distribute more independently-made films or even experimental movies. Of course, Disney’s investment in Miramax meant that the divide between mainstream Hollywood and independent cinema was already becoming blurred. But Miramax would emerge as an award-winner par excellence, claiming 303 Oscar nominations and 75 Academy Awards.

Over to China, and one of the leading movie producers is keen to emulate the Weinstein’s success. “China’s Miramax” is how Dong Ping describes the studio he’s built. So far, progress has been good. The 53 year-old showcases awards from film festivals in Asia and in the West. He was the money man behind the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which won two Oscars in 2001, and Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, the second-highest grossing domestically-made film in China with Rmb1.3 billion ($210 million) in takings (see WiC182).

What has Dong learned from the Miramax model? “On the surface Miramax supports independent movies,” Dong told reporters. “But in fact what the Weinstein brothers have done is to commercialise art and culture entirely.”

Born in 1961 in Inner Mongolia, Dong grew up in a generation that never went to the cinema. The industry was largely shut down during the Cultural Revolution and the only movies to get produced were highly formulaic propaganda offerings, such as The Red Detachment of Women (see WiC153).

Dong graduated from the Beijing Normal University, a school that trains teachers, in 1986. He then studied opera and trained as a singer (He idolises the late Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti.) But after leaving college Dong worked in Beijing’s cultural administration department for two years. Then in 1988 he took his career in a dramatically different direction when he joined the Beijing unit of state oil major CNPC. Soon after that he formed his own private firm that traded petrochemical products and “everything else”. At the time the prices of essential goods were under state control. But well-connected businessmen were making profits by trading outside the official channels. That led to inflation and triggered an anti-corruption drive, as well as eventual unrest of 1989.

What followed next for Dong is little known. But it was obvious he had managed to accumulate a fortune from his trading businesses. And by 1996 he had established the Beijing Asian Union, returning to his favourite stage of art and culture. By then Dong had built up strong political connections too. That was underlined by a personal feat that no one else had attempted: becoming the first private sector firm to invest in China’s movie industry.

Asian Union purchased a minority stake in Beijing Forbidden City Sanlian. The state-owned studio and film distributor had worked with famous directors such as Zhang Yimou and Jiang Wen but was struggling financially.

“Producing movie content remained a very dangerous, even life-threatening trade,” Dong later recalled to CBN. The industry may have been a minefield but Dong still took the risk. After two months of “intensive lobbying and negotiations”, he bought the rights to a script from Zhang Yimou. It became Keep Cool, an urban comedy different from Zhang’s earlier work. (And the first time that Zhang hadn’t worked with actress Gong Li.) Keep Cool was a commercial success too, scoring more than Rmb40 million in China when screened in 1997. Next was Jiang Wen’s Devil on the Doorstep, which was released in 1998 and won the grand prize at Cannes in 2000.

But China’s local players were soon to feel the weight of Hollywood’s showbusiness power. Given new freedoms for release in China, James Cameron’s Titanic took Rmb320 million out of the entire Rmb1.4 billion spend at the box office in 1999. “Titanic made us truly understand the importance of the cultural industry,” Dong says.

As a result the authorities began to lower entry barriers for investors from Hong Kong and Taiwan. An early result was Taiwanese director Lee Ang’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, which also proved the breakthrough movie for Dong himself, who invested in it. The success made him an obvious partner for more state firms with an eye on China’s growing cinema audience too and Poly Group invested about Rmb400 million for a 51% stake in a joint venture with Dong in 2003 (for more on this conglomerate, see WiC203).

The new venture, Poly-Asian Union, was hailed as the “biggest merger in the cultural industry” as it combined a state-owned giant with a leading private sector producer. The deal reinforced Dong’s “godfather status” in the movie industry, says the Hong Kong Economic Journal. The Poly connection also helped to launch Dong as a film financier. Rather than networking with leading directors and actors, Dong became more connected with prominent financial figures too.

In early 2005 Dong transferred part of Poly-Asian Union to an obscure Hong Kong-listed firm. The reverse takeover allowed Dong to land on Hong Kong’s stock market. Three years later, he sold the company to Edward Tian, founder of media-focused private equity firm China Broadband Capital.

Dong then acquired a cement maker in another reverse takeover in Hong Kong and renamed it ChinaVision Media. Making and distributing movies continued to be a core business for ChinaVision – for example, it invested in Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly in 2010 – but Dong has also expanded to other media sectors. ChinaVision profits from selling advertising in the Beijing Times, a newspaper that Dong cofounded with the People’s Daily in 2001, and the company was first to bag the exclusive rights to screen England’s Premier League football live on smartphones.

Earlier this month the mogul surprised the market by divesting again – this time selling his controlling stake to internet giant Alibaba. News of the deal briefly pushed ChinaVision’s market value as high as $9 billion.

Dong stays as ChinaVision’s chairman for the time being, telling the Global Times that the company is planning to produce five movies and five TV series this year. But with Alibaba’s investment, plans could now be expanded.

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