Spotlight: U.S.-China Entertainment Summit builds golden bridges crossing Pacific

By Julia Pierrepont III

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 3 (Xinhua) — From the impact of U.S. trade policies to the future of Chinese film market, from stagnation of investment to successful co-productions, Asian Society’s U.S.-China Entertainment Summit delivered a diversified symposium and star-studded gala featuring entertainment luminaries from both sides of the Pacific.

“Entertainment people have very different feelings about China,” Janet Yang told Xinhua Thursday. “Summits like this can help them make more informed decisions, so players that have the intelligence to make better movies and deals can stay in the game.”

Yang, producer of “Empire of the Sun,” early last week co-chaired the most prestigious event of its kind in Southern California, with Richard Drobnick from the Asia Society, a non-profit organization found in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller III that focuses on educating the world about Asia.

The summit packed in a host of high-profile entertainment industry leaders to discuss the uncertain future of Hollywood-China relations in the wake of the Trump administration’s trade policies, and the drying up of Chinese investment.

Industry heavyweights — Perfect World Picture’s Senior Vice President, Rong Chen; Gao Qun of Starlight Culture Entertainment; Alexis Garcis of Endeavor Content, and John Penotti, producer of “Crazy Rich Asians” — all weighed in.

Chen contended, “I’ve held the view for years that U.S.-China deals (in Hollywood) were happening too fast, like driving at 80 miles per hour in a parking lot. When you hit a speed bump, it isn’t the speed bump’s fault. It’s healthy we are slowing down. Now the right deals by the right people are getting done.”

Manatt’s Lindsay Conner told Xinhua, “I’m an optimist and recognize our industry is not immune to the effects of the U.S. and China trade relations, but we hope the relations do not go south – that cooler heads will prevail.”

More eyes explored the growing Chinese market, but not only the screens in theaters.

Carrie Wong, Sony’s head of local production in China said “If we want the millennials to stay with cinema, we need to make things that are good theatrical experience.”

Jack Gao, former head of Legendary, is taking a different tack. He’s bringing theater to millennials by launching an ambitious start-up called Smart Cinema which he hopes will supplement the standard film distribution model.

He told Xinhua that “80 percent of China population has not gone to the theatre yet. And attendance per theatre is going down. Smart Cinema turns your mobile screen into your own movie screen projector.”

Albert Cheng, COO and Co-Head of TV at Amazon Studios, advised creators to focus on franchising. “World-building and characters that can exist over multiple storylines for longer periods of time are key.”

“The Meg” producers, production companies, and distributors swallowed the audience whole on their panel, giving valuable insights into how they managed to create the highest grossing U.S.-China co-production.

The Meg, showed in China this summer, holds the record for the biggest U.S.-China co-production, with a global box-office of 527.8 million U.S. dollars, and is currently Warner Bros’ biggest debut in 2018 so far.

Visionary producer Belle Avery stressed the importance of authenticity. “I knew this film had to be a China co-pro. And it was important to do it right. It had to culturally be sound. The key is to be respectful and synergistic with your partner’s culture,” she revealed.

Ben Erwei Ji, former head of Gravity Pictures, now GM of Glory Reach Entertainment, advised, “I’ve seen a lot of co-pro scripts about Flying Tigers and foreign missionaries, all sad historical pieces. But for co-pro material, to target young audiences, its better to look forward, not back.”

Director, Cathy Yan, will be the first Asian woman to direct a Hollywood superhero picture, DC’s “Birds of Prey,” which is scheduled to be on screen February 2020.

“I loved the script. It felt like my own voice. It has dark humor to it and the theme of female empowerment was so strong and so relatable,” she told Xinhua.

The summit wrapped with a superb conversation, moderated by Janet Yang, between the Academy Award-winning indie writer/actor/director, Billy Bob Thornton, and China’s first and arguably finest hit writer/actor/director, Xu Zheng.

Zheng, who catapulted to fame writing, directing and starring in China’s first homegrown blockbuster, the rollicking comedy, “Lost in Thailand,” was honored with the Entertainment Pioneer Award.

And Kevin Tsujihara, Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Warner Bros. and the first Asian-American to head up a Hollywood studio, was honored for his vision and leadership in transforming Hollywood into a more inclusive and forward-looking industry.

“We need to recognize the value and power of diversity. It not only feels good, it’s good for business.”

Also honored was renowned actress, Michelle Yeoh, co-star of the global hit “Crazy Rich Asians, for her lifetime achievements as an actress, producer and writer. She has won hearts and critical accolades around the world in a career that spans from China, Europe and Hollywood.

“It’s an honor for me to be part of the sea change in the industry. Now we can build our own future,” Yeoh told Xinhua.

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