China Meets Hollywood in Alibaba Pictures-Amblin Partners Tie-up

Alibaba Pictures Group took a big step into the global entertainment market today with the announcement that it had formed a “comprehensive strategic alliance” with Amblin Partners, the Hollywood content company led by director and producer Steven Spielberg, in a deal that calls for the organizations to co-produce and finance films for international and Chinese audiences.

Alibaba Pictures, which is 49.5% owned by China-based e-commerce titan Alibaba Group, will also collaborate with Amblin Partners in the marketing, distribution and merchandising of Amblin Partner movies in China, which despite a recent box-office slump is expected to surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest movie market.

As part of the deal—a first for both sides—Alibaba Pictures will acquire a minority stake in Amblin Partners and take a seat on its board of directors. Financial terms were not disclosed. Amblin Partners is a content-creation company formed by DreamWorks Studios, Participant Media, Reliance Entertainment and eOne.

Appearing today at a Beijing press conference that included Alibaba Group Executive Chairman Jack Ma, Spielberg, chairman of Amblin Partners, said the goal of the strategic alliance is to “entertain audiences through creativity and imagination both here and around the world.” Alibaba Pictures is Amblin Partners’ first Chinese partner.

Spielberg said he strives to tell stories “on a human scale, (stories) about the same values that we share both in the East and West. I’m hoping Jack and I can tell some of those stories in this new partnership between Amblin Partners and Alibaba Pictures,” he said. “We can bring more China to America and bring more America to China.”

Ma called Spielberg one of the world’s most influential filmmakers, adding that the collaboration “can serve as a cultural bridge and have a positive impact on the next generation of Chinese consumers.”

“We may have cultural differences but the human values are the same,” Ma said. “When I see movies, I see the human part of it. That’s why I love Steven’s movies. It’s not just high tech. We want to see the human part of it.”

For Alibaba Pictures, the partnership is “an important milestone in our globalization strategy to reach Chinese and global audiences alike,” said Alibaba Pictures Chairman Shao Xiaofeng. Alibaba Pictures—which has businesses spanning digital marketing, online ticketing, cinema services and operations, and entertainment e-commerce–will be Amblin Partner’s merchandise and licensing partner in China as well as its exclusive China distribution partner.

Alibaba Pictures will also have the option of co-financing Amblin Partners films worldwide. By sharing resources, technology and talent to co-produce movies in China and collaborate on other projects, Alibaba Pictures will benefit from future Amblin Partners film titles as well as Spielberg’s vision, Alibaba Pictures officials said.

Alibaba Pictures President Zhang Wei talks about the Amblin Partners collaboration.

The deal will give Amblin greater capabilities in the China market. Alibaba Pictures, which is traded on the Hong Kong stock exchange, will be able to tap Alibaba Group’s extensive ecosystem of online marketplaces, mobile apps and digital entertainment assets to generate marketing buzz and sell tickets and movie-related merchandise, creating “a channel for Amblin Partners’ films to reach hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers.” Shao said. Anchored by its giant e-commerce marketplaces Taobao Marketplace and Tmall.com, Alibaba Group’s China ecosystem has 434 million active users.

In addition to working together to build theater box office, the deal calls for the partners to collaborate in Web-based content distribution through video streaming, a fast-growing market in China, and eventually in TV and other forms of digital distribution. Alibaba Group owns online streaming site Youku Tudou and an over-the-top (OTT) content distribution service for homes called Tmall Box Office.

At the press conference, Spielberg said he was impressed by the progress China has made since his last visit nine years ago. The director filmed “Empire of the Sun” in 1998 in Shanghai, becoming the first American studio to shoot on Chinese soil, he said.

“I’m in the imagination business,” he said. “That’s what I’ve done all my life (and) that’s exactly what Jack has done through his effort and vision on Alibaba, (looking) ahead 20 or 30 years … both of us really have strong, optimistic, and hopeful belief in the future,” Spielberg said.