Alibaba Pictures Buys Into Chinese Director Han Han’s Film Studio

Alibaba Pictures has invested an undisclosed amount in Chinese celebrity blogger-turned film director Han Han’s Shanghai Tingdong Film, it confirmed to Variety Thursday. Han’s upcoming “Pegasus” is one of the most anticipated films of the year.

Alibaba Pictures, part of e-commerce giant Alibaba, is now the second-largest stakeholder in Tingdong. It has a 13.1% stake, according to Chinese finance publication Caixin.

The deal is a “long-term strategic partnership that covers content production, distribution and marketing, merchandise and artist management,” Alibaba told Variety. It falls under the umbrella of a new initiative launched in November called the “Jin Cheng Co-Production Plan” — with “jin cheng” roughly translating in English to “golden orange.”

Under this plan, Alibaba intends to co-produce 20 films over the next five years with various top production teams. The films will be released during at the four busiest movie-going times of each year: the Chinese Lunar New Year, summer, national day and end of year periods.

A race car driver who rose to fame as a satirical blogger and published his first bestselling novel at 17, Han, now 37, was hailed in his younger days as the voice of the post-Tiananmen generation of Chinese youth. He shifted to movies in 2014 with “The Continent,” a road-trip comedy that marked his first turn as screenwriter and director.

He established Tingdong in 2015. The company has since produced five films that brought in some $355 million (RMB2.4 billion), said Caixin. Titles include “Duckweed,” a 2017 Chinese New Year hit written and directed by Han that grossed more than RMB1 billion ($148 million).

Its latest feature “Pegasus” is scheduled for release on February 5, the first day of the Chinese New Year, and already seems poised to beat out stiff competition. More than 280,000 people have indicated they want to see the film on ticketing platform Maoyan, making it the most second most hotly anticipated title out of the whopping 13 films lined up for release that same day.

This is the third round of financing obtained by Tingdong since Han deployed a modest RMB15.2 million ($2.2 million) of startup capital. In February 2016, the company received tens of millions of yuan from Puhua Capital. And in October 2017, it received a $45.8 million (RMB310 million) joint investment from Bona Film, Chenhai Capital, and a Shanghai-based cultural center, the Beijing News cited the Tianyan business database as showing. The latter represented at 15.5% stake at the time, it added — indicating that the company’s valuation had then already reached $295 million (RMB2 billion).

Information from Tianyan shows that on Jan. 9, 2019, Tingdong brought in Li Jie, senior VP of Alibaba Pictures and head of Alibaba’s ticketing platform Tao Piaopiao, as a company director. Han Han currently has 14 companies other than Tingdong registered in his name, ranging from film and TV outfits to cultural communications and tech, Tianyan shows.

The first film to be released under Alibaba’s “Jin Cheng” plan is “Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year,” a co-production with Entertainment One that will hit theaters on Feb. 5 as well. The next in the plan’s line-up will be a 2020 fantasy suspense movie whose Chinese title translates to “The Assassination of a Novelist.” A co-production with Huace Media and Beijing Free Whale Pictures, it will be directed by Lu Yang, best known for the 2014 martial arts movie “Brotherhood of Blades” and its 2017 sequel.

Alibaba’s investment in Tingdong comes at the start of what will be a difficult year for the local Chinese film industry, which faces massive production slowdowns and uncertainties due to new tax regulations and cautious investors. But losses for the Chinese industry’s smaller players may create opportunity for Hollywood, and for China’s best capitalized players.

Last week, an Alibaba producer announced that Golden Globe-winning “Green Book” will get a China release sometime this year but did not reveal an exact date, Chinese state media reported. Alibaba describes itself as an investor in the film, though its name was not on the credits when the film premiered in September at the Toronto festival.

“It is such an amazing picture, which includes humorous dialogues, excellent acting performance, and touching friendship,” Alibaba Pictures president Zhang Wei said, according to the Chinese state broadcaster’s English-language channel CGTN. “We are so honored to participate in the course of co-production, as well as to introduce it to the Chinese audience.”