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Jack Ma, Spielberg strike deal to bring Hollywood to China

Sunday, October 9, 2016 - 18:17
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Steven Spielberg (L), film director and chairman of Amblin Partners and Jack Ma, chairman and chief executive of Alibaba Group, attend an event to announce partnership between Alibaba Pictures Group Limited and Amblin Partners, in Beijing, China, October 9, 2016. SOURCE:REUTERS

[HONG KONG] It's a casting director's dream. Jack Ma, China's richest man, and the highest-grossing Hollywood auteur of all time have struck a deal to work together to produce and finance films for the world's second-largest movie market.

Alibaba Pictures Group Ltd is buying a stake in Amblin Partners, the production outfit backed by Steven Spielberg to work together on production, marketing and distribution both globally and in China. It's the latest in a spree of deals over the past two years intended to help US studios tap what could soon be the world's largest box office, while hopefully imparting a little of that Hollywood movie-making magic to increasingly ambitious Chinese households.

The agreement with Spielberg's storied studio marks Alibaba's and Ma's most comprehensive production effort to date. The company has been selective so far, preferring to invest in select films such as the latest installment of the "Mission Impossible" franchise, in return for an equity stake and the right to stream it across internet giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd's various online services.

"Among Chinese consumers, there is an increasing demand for premium global content," Mr Ma said in an e-mailed statement. "This collaboration can serve as a cultural bridge and have a positive impact on the next generation of Chinese consumers." Alibaba Pictures will also name a representative to sit on the board of Amblin Partners, a content creation company formed by DreamWorks Studios, Participant Media, Reliance Entertainment and Entertainment One. Spielberg is the Chairman of Amblin Partners.

"We intend to make six to nine movies a year, " Amblin Partners President and Co-Chief Executive Officer Jeff Small said Sunday at a launch of the tie-up in a downtown Beijing skyscraper's ballroom. The films would be distributed by a network that included Universal Pictures Ltd. China had the "fastest-growing demand in world." Mr Ma and Mr Spielberg appeared together at the launch.

"There's a lot in China that's becoming more and more known, through media ... and China's tremendous renaissance," said Spielberg, who was part of a crew that shot the movie "Empire of the Sun" in Shanghai in the 1980s. He said he wants to "bring more of China to America and more of America to China." Mr Ma told the launch he's not personally trying to envision movies of the future, but "my job is using technology to support these guys." China has been a focus for Hollywood studios in recent years as the U.S. film market has stagnated. In 2015, China's box office totaled $6.8 billion, up 49 percent from the previous year, according to consulting firm Artisan Gateway. The North American box office had its biggest year in 2015 at $11.1 billion, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.  American studios have been looking to Chinese partners for funding and ways to maximize their revenue from a country that limits the number of foreign firms exhibited annually at 34. That aligns with the ambitions of a coterie of local media houses that are in turn trying to hone an ability to reach worldwide audiences, and hasn't been shy about paying for it.

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