The relationship between the United States and China hit a number of speed bumps in 2017, interruptions caused by all manner of political and economic shake-ups and disturbances. Beyond President Trump's frequent antagonizing of the Chinese government, Beijing largely put a halt to domestic companies' investment in (or outright purchase of) foreign corporations, which shut off a fire hose of capital to Hollywood studios and production companies. Chinese moviegoers, by and large, did the same, skipping most American exports in favor of films made by homebred filmmakers.
And yet, last month Skydance Media, the production company behind the Mission: Impossible and Terminator movies, announced that it had reached a large investment deal from the massive Chinese conglomerate Tencent Media. At $100 million for a reported five to ten percent of the company, which was founded in 2010 by David Ellison, the deal is one of the biggest between Hollywood and China since the outright purchase of Legendary in 2014, but represents more of a strategic partnership than outright takeover. And importantly, it was justified by hard data more than blue sky trend projections.
"Because of the boom we are experiencing in television in the US, for us at Skydance, we really have to make something we believe requires the theatrical experience to fully appreciate the content," Jesse Sisgold, Skydance Media President/COO, told SYFY WIRE. "What we focus on for our feature film live-action division is big and bold sci-fi, action, adventure and fantasy that we believe plays for a global audience. It's not going to be super focused on a domestic issue, for example. That may be part of the reason that Chinese audiences have really responded to them, because they're not so U.S.-centric or Euro-centric, but more global stories that we believe can appeal to anyone."
Indeed, Skydance's movies have a history of success in China, even when falling short in the United States. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, a global hit, made $135 million in China, while Terminator Genisys, which had a soft American run at $89 million, scored $113 million in China. Even Geostorm, which fell hard this fall in the US last fall, earned $65 million from Chinese audiences, which is nearly double what Americans paid to see the movie.
The more recent successes, even if modest, stand out. Over the last decade, American production companies and distributors interested in cracking the Chinese market have been alternately rewarded and mystified. Once Beijing loosened the reins after decades of cultural suppression, Hollywood saw fertile ground across the Pacific. The country's rapid industrialization has included the construction of endless movie theaters, and the rising middle class of a country with 1.4 billion people quickly became the world's second-largest movie market. But annual quotas on American imports, blackout periods imposed on foreign films during prime moviegoing periods, and uncertain payment schedules all combined to make China seem a bit like El Dorado for studios, a place that held infinite promise but may not exist as conceptualized.
Things have only gotten dicier as American films have begun to fall flat in the Middle Kingdom. The country was in the midst of the suppressive Cultural Revolution when the original Star Wars movies were released, and so excitement for the franchise there has not mirrored the rest of the world. The Last Jedi was pulled from Chinese theaters after just two unsuccessful weeks, and four of the top five box office performers last year were domestic films. The movie audience is only growing, but American companies can't always rely on the IP doing the heavy lifting or at least creating an initial buzz, as is often the case around the rest of the world.
American studios need to better understand Chinese audiences, and Sisgold stressed several times that one of the keys to the deal was a marketing partnership with Tencent. The Chinese conglomerate owns and operates some of the biggest social media and messaging companies in the world, some with over half a billion active users.
"Given their online ticketing platforms, social messaging apps, online video and publishing platforms, it's safe to say their impact in promotion can be massive. If they really turn on their machine, they can go beyond really anything we experience here," he said. "I think they really respect their audience, so they'll do it as is appropriate and genuine, and we believe we're aligned on that."
The advantage that comes with owning a social media platform is that it serves as a two-way information exchange. Not only can Tencent blast out marketing messages to billions of screens, it can suck up data from its users and analyze in exacting detail what each member likes, dislikes, engages with, and ignores. The type of movies Skydance makes already seem to appeal with Chinese audiences, at least thematically, but with access to that mountain of data, they can understand, in Netflix-like detail, what resonates with viewers enough to entice them into buying tickets. That not only impacts the marketing — and Sisgold noted that sometimes, Tencent Pictures will act as the distributor of a Skydance movie — but it could potentially help shape movies themselves.
"I will say if it still feels authentic to the movie and its characters, then yes," Sisgold said. "We're not above, and in fact, we're a supporter of paying very serious attention to data analytics and we employ social listening tools. The more information the better. We believe if making certain moves will drive the audience even further, then we're going to look at that very seriously. The only reason we wouldn't, is if in our gut instinct we feel like it's just not appropriate in the movie."
Much of that will obviously be left to the filmmakers themselves, especially when it's James Cameron at the helm. Skydance is making the next Terminator sequel, and in that case, the advantage isn't so much data as ancillary markets. Tencent is a huge player in the gaming sector in China, and Terminator 2 was the most downloaded game in China last year; it generated some raised eyebrows because its Battle Royale mode was very reminiscent of a Korean game, but the IP was in the top-ranked game nonetheless. Skydance has its own gaming division, and is looking for a huge boost from Tencent on that front.
Tencent also may benefit from the arrangement. Not only will it sometimes distribute Skydance movies, Sisgold left open the possibility that Skydance could help consult or even make movies for the Chinese market.
"It wasn't a driver of the deal, but we're very open-minded to do that," he said. "We are already developing a close relationship with Tencent Pictures. They are becoming entrenched in some global movies and they have a bit of a base here in Los Angeles, but we want to explore that further with them. I think that's a mission that both are gonna explore and on the right project we will definitely do that. We would be open to doing China co-production that we feel like make sense. And also if it makes sense, adding our expertise and potentially financing for China market only for a certain IP, whether it's an adaptation or otherwise."
It's become difficult to predict the future of movies in China, but the multi-pronged deal gives Skydance several solid footholds in the ever-shifting market.