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Society & Culture

Cash of the Titans

Oct 28 , 2016

Ladies and Gentlemen, step right up! Take a ringside seat as the cash titans clash. In one corner, Wanda’s Wang Jianlin, in the other, Alibaba’s Jack Ma. Who has more money? Who makes better movies? Who’s the biggest mogul of them all?

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Jack Ma made his fortune in online retail, while Wang Jianlin got rich in real estate. Now, both turn their gaze to Hollywood. Their battle for influence is one of those larger-than-life sized conflicts, perfect for reality TV, if not the silver screen. It pits a military martinet who came of age under Mao versus an elflike nerd who came of age under Deng. The one a bombastic man of limitless ambition, the other a self-deprecating striver quick to point to personal failures and shortcomings, the one a braggadocio playboy, the other a soft-spoken environmentalist, the one a vocal nationalist who speaks through a translator, the other a former teacher of English.

By some accounts the more mild-mannered of the two is in the lead (Alibaba’s Jack Ma Overtakes Wanda’s Wang as Asia’s Richest Man”--Bloomberg April 26, 2016), while more recent statistics suggest that the Disney-bashing, former PLA border guard Wang Jianlin is in the lead (Jack Ma is Still not Asia’s Richest Man--Forbes, October 13, 2016).

The story of their rivalry would make a nice movie script, if only it weren’t true, but it’s a reality, and that’s why Hollywood won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. Not just for fear of inadvertently offending China, a big enough bugbear as it is, but for fear of jeopardizing cash injections from Wang and Ma, both of whom are worth over 30 billion dollars. One of the cardinal rules of Hollywood subculture is to feign being nice to everyone because fortunes rise and fall and you never know who you might need or when.

Should Tinseltown’s moviemakers begin celebrating the sudden influx of foreign money or ducking for cover?  There’s already a billboard in LA suggesting that investment from China is less than welcome. “CHINA’S RED PUPPET: AMC THEATRES” brought to you by Chinaownsus.com.

Jack Ma has just concluded a deal, for which Steven Spielberg flew to Beijing, to link up Alibaba, Ma’s Internet giant, with Amblin Partners, a prestigious creative grouping with gilded box office results. Jack Ma’s company has invested in film before, including the most recent sequels of Mission Impossible, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Trek, but the deal with Spielberg, which includes a seat on the board of Amblin Partners, puts Ma in a position to co-produce top-flight creative product at the top of the game.

Steven Spielberg’s name as an auteur needs no introduction, but his political position on China has changed over the years. He was the most prominent director in the first wave of Americans to co-produce in China, resulting in “Empire of the Sun” (1986), which I worked on as an assistant. Two decades later, Spielberg was the most prominent of the creative consultants wooed by China to withdraw from a group that included Zhang Yimou, Quincy Jones and Ang Lee to effectively boycott the 2008 Olympics.

Now Spielberg’s back in China again, showing an ideological forbearance for the system that was not apparent during the Beijing Olympics. Whether it’s due to China changing, or a renewed appreciation for China as a valid partner on the part of Spielberg is hard to say, but the potential win-win wealth from co-production revenue speaks volumes.

Within days of Jack Ma’s exciting announcement, China’s other billionaire extraordinaire, Wang Jianlin, jetted into Hollywood to celebrate the soft opening of the Qingdao Movie Metropolis, an 8 billion dollar gamble on turning hard cash into soft power, built on the shores of the Yellow Sea in Qingdao. Wang made a point of dangling his thick wallet at studios who might be willing to give themselves up for purchase, while also promising rebates of up to 15 million dollars per film made on his new premises. And while in LA, where he is also building a lavish branch office, he hopes to finalize a billion dollar deal to acquire Dick Clark Productions, which almost seems like small change in the wake of other recent mega-acquisitions including AMC Entertainment (2.6 billion) and Legendary Entertainment (3.5 billion), and that’s not to mention a co-financing deal with Sony Pictures.

What could possibly drive the two richest men in Asia to part with so much money in America’s fabled film center? Getting a straight answer is a challenge of Citizen Kane proportions, but if we can take PR announcements at face value, the “Rosebud” of ambition has nothing to do with money or ego.

“We have to make Hollywood go back to storytelling,” says Wang Jianlin, even though his efforts to date have been more about infrastructure than plot structure. Coincidentally or not, “story” was the motivation first put forward by Hollywood’s most successful storyteller while in Beijing. “Some of the stories I'm hoping Jack and I can tell in this new partnership,” said Steven Spielberg, “will be able to bring Chinese-themed stories to the American audience.” 

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