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E! Entertainment co-founder on the new Chinese entertainment industry


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E! Entertainment co-founder on the new Chinese entertainment industry

In the late 1980s, LarryNamer and a friend hatched an idea for a television network called Movietime, whichlater became E! Entertainment Television. Since then, Namer has helped to launchseveral TV networks around the world. In 2008, he co-founded Metan Global EntertainmentGroup, which aims to bridge the gap between Hollywood and China by producing anddistributing television shows, movies and digital content for Chinese-speaking audiences.The company's flagship series is "Hello! Hollywood," an entertainmentnews show, but Metan is currently adapting several popular Western TV show formatsfor local Chinese audiences. SNL Kagan recently caught up with Namer at DigitalHollywood in Los Angeles to discuss how the Chinese entertainment market is evolving.What follows is an edited version of that interview.

SNL Image
Larry Namer, President and CEO of Metan Global Entertainment Group
Source: Metan Global Entertainment Group

SNL Kagan: From your workat E! Entertainment, tell me how you ended up in China with Metan.

Larry Namer: Evenwhile I was with E! I started doing a bunch of stuff in Russia, which to me wasmore of a hobby. But I just started really liking working outside of the U.S. Ihad helped the Russians work on media reform, just basically making the media worlda little more familiar to western marketers that were now coming into the country.About six years ago the Chinese realized they also had to adjust things from that100% state-dominated communist doctrine to make it more familiar to Western marketers.So they ended up finding me and asking me to come in and work with young TV executivesin helping them through that transition from communist state-operated TV to learninghow to create things people might want to watch and a brand might want to put themselvesnext to.

I kind of got fascinated with China. It was obvious to me thatthings were changing, and changing quickly. Over here you've got all these barriers,whether they are technology barriers or the concentration of media control in theU.S., that really precluded me from doing more adventurous stuff, multiplatformstorytelling and things like that. I looked at China and there are 500 million peopleconsuming media on a cell phone, so they're already where I want to go. I just realizedit was going to be a fun place to do stuff. Our theories there have migrated fromdoing stuff only for the Chinese audience to now we really look at China being agreat place to do stuff for the Chinese audience but also great for playing withnew formats of storytelling and programming, inexpensively having a wide breadthof people to test against. If you want to learn how to produce video for peopleto consume on a cell phone, that's a good place to do it.

You mentioned during apanel discussion that a lot of Chinese consumers went straight to mobile as theirfirst screen, skipping the TV and PC. So they're more mobile-native there?

Yes, they've jumped over us in a lot of ways, and it's a greatway to experiment. We really made our mind that we were going to try to figure outthe market, where I think most media companies up until very recently looked atChina and just said, "Oh, we'll take what we do in Australia and subtitle itin Chinese." It doesn't work.

So why doesn't the entertainmentindustry get China?

First of all the audience is different. We think that all audiencesare like American audiences, and that's just not true, and especially not true inChina. There used to be a time when everyone wanted to be American, wanted to moveto America. Those days are over. Chinese people actually start off with the factthat they're really happy to be Chinese. So you start off with the fact that they'renot unhappy, and then you look at age differences, maturity differences. The waywe program to a teenage girl in the U.S. is so different than how you have to programto a teenage girl in China, because a teenage girl in China doesn't date, she doesn'tdrink, she doesn't talk back to her parents, she's grown up living with four grandparents.She knows her grandparents. Just being human in China is different than being humanin the U.S. So if programming is about reaching humans on an emotional level, they'redifferent. Like, we do a Hollywood news show. In the U.S. TMZ has become the benchmarkfor that. So let's go find someone drinking at a bar, cheating on his wife, we'llexpose him and ruin his life forever. If you interview Tom Cruise in the U.S., it'slike, tell us about scientology and all of that. In China it's like, what do youdo with your kids on the weekend? What they want is different. So until you reallydig in and really understand — forget about government relations — what does theaudience want?

Some predications havethe Chinese film business eclipsing the U.S. by the end of this decade or sooner,but we still seem pretty obsessed with U.S. performance of films and other properties.

That will change. China will surpass the U.S. I think they'reopening 20 movie screens a day now; I think IMAX opens three a week, which is justcrazy numbers. They're 3x or 4x bigger than the U.S., so they will be the largestmovie market in the world. That doesn't mean Chinese movies will be the largestproviders. Things are getting interesting because now you have like Wanda Groupbuying Legendary Pictures, you have Chinese companies investing in film funds. Sois it an American movie, or is it a Chinese movie? If you take a Paramount movie,funded by the Chinese, shot in Italy, what is it?

What's driving the entertainmentindustry growth over there?

China does have restrictions on foreign content, which is allowinga Chinese film industry to build and learn. The regulatory environment is fosteringgrowth in the Chinese film community. For foreign films, you're restricted to 20Western films and then there's a second quota that allows you to bring in another14, but only if they're 3-D or IMAX, so it's a maximum of 34 films can get intoChina. So you've got all these theaters going and they have to put something onthe screen. The Chinese industry is building and people are investing a lot in theChinese film industry because you have a lot of demand and not enough screens tofill the demand.

But the film industryis projected to grow faster than the Chinese economy itself.

That's because it's been behind. There are 34 cities with over10 million people, and just building enough movie theaters to satisfy one city cankeep you going for the next decade.

Looking back, how hasthe IP investment market evolved and how have returns been trending?

It's definitely getting bigger. When I first went there, piracywas much, much more of an issue than it is now. At one point people couldn't affordto pay for Western content, so they pirated Western content. Now you have the riseof these big Internet platforms like Youku, Tencent and stuff like that, and they'relegally licensing content. So they're the ones now going to the government and saying,"Hey, we're paying for this movie. You can't just let people take it."The government has a vested interest in seeing they're protected. So there's a lotmore enforcement of IP and protection there than I've seen, and it keeps gettingbetter. It's not perfect yet, but it's not like you could walk out on the streetand find the new Captain America DVD on the street corner like you used to.