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Zhou Yuan: Growing Prospects for U.S.-China Co-Productions

December 12, 2016
Zhou Yuan, the co-founder and executive vice president of Linmon Pictures
Zhou Yuan, the co-founder and executive vice president of Linmon Pictures

Zhou Yuan is the co-founder and executive vice president of Linmon Pictures, an entertainment content provider targeting next-generation consumers with investment from Hony Capital and Tencent. Under Zhou’s leadership, Linmon has developed, produced and distributed three top rated television series in China. Linmon is also collaborating with The Walt Disney Studios on a slate of film projects. As the former head of the Shanghai Media Group Pictures, Zhou expanded distribution networks, delivered integrated marketing services and developed close relationships in Hollywood.

There’s a lot of talk about Hollywood feature film co-productions with China, but what are the prospects for television co-productions?

I keep telling people in the industry, especially in Hollywood, that television has bigger potential than the movie industry in China. The trend we see there is that movies are still very much an older form of media; it requires people to go to the mall and spend hours there to park, have dinner, then pay for the ticket. It’s much more like event consumption, and people can go to the theater once a month or so to have fun with family; but TV consumption is daily.

In China, we’re pretty much in the period like America in the 1980s or 1990s, where we have four major TV networks. Consumers are going to those major TV networks to watch TV dramas and non-scripted format TV shows. We don’t have a Chinese version of HBO or Netflix, with high-value original productions for the TV format. So I think there’s a long way to go for the Chinese TV industry to become what it looks like in the United States today. China’s consumers are prime to be upgraded to the next level.

What kinds of co-productions would you be interested in working on with Hollywood?

It depends on what kind of format. If you look specifically at different genres of co-productions, I think there’s a better chance for non-scripted shows to work in China than scripted shows. Reality shows, for instance. The most successful TV show from outside of China in the last three or four years is the Chinese version of “The Voice.” For scripted format, it’s going to be more difficult because it has to be more culturally and locally relevant.

Are you receiving more demand for quality TV content?

We are receiving very huge demand from broadcasters and online video services, but the competition is also very fierce. You’ve got to be one of the top production companies in the country in order to get subscribers to view your content and command a higher licensing fee, so you’ve got to be very strong in the intellectual property, the casting, the production value, marketing, everything.

Talk about your collaboration with Disney.

We have launched our own slate of 10 feature films, and on a couple of them we are working with Disney. We have been working with Disney for a while – we find a topic that we are both interested in, and we spend time and money on development, and we hire local talent, local writers, and local directors to develop those projects. Most of these projects for now are Chinese-language features. Disney is very much involved in every level of this project. In the beginning phase of each project, they talk directly with talent. On every script draft, both our company and Disney give comments, and we talk directly with key talent about the themes. So it’s not like we are just supplying money, and they are just taking care of the technology process. We are really working as one team. They visit Beijing very often, and they work very hard with local talent.

Disney has one of the strongest systems to support talent and create a great story. Their executives are very experienced in storytelling and are very experienced in production management, and they also have a huge marketing and distribution system in China and the rest of the world. They can be very helpful at every stage.

Are you interested in distributing TV shows globally?

We do not see that as our major distribution channel direction; we are realistic about it. We are very focused on China’s domestic market because it represents one of the most fast-growing markets and demand is huge, and people are asking for higher quality content to watch. Also, internet players want to invest more money to acquire this content. I think it’s a market that presents more opportunities compared with the rest of the world.

You’ve worked extensively in co-productions, any insights or tips about how to participate in co-productions?

Co-production is really a niche segment of the whole Chinese film and TV industry. You cannot be naïve and think that, as a Hollywood producer or filmmaker, you can definitely bring all your knowledge to China, because this market is unique and very different than the rest of the world. If I’m going to give one piece of advice to my Hollywood friends, it’s to be humble and to be ready to learn from China first. Spend your time to talk with different companies, different filmmakers in China, to better understand this market first. Then set up with a partner that you feel is a good fit and have chemistry with, and work together on one or two single projects. Do not spend too much money or time to mingle with people who cannot make projects.

What are Chinese companies looking for in a U.S. partner?

We are definitely looking for partners that have great work ethics and strong track records in the Hollywood industry, with great connections to Hollywood talent. We definitely need their expertise and their extensive knowledge of the industry to help us to deliver better quality projects to the public.

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