Several stories came out this past week reporting on the recent failure of Chinese investments in Hollywood. Wanda’s highly publicized purchase of Dick Clark Productions, long rumored to be on the rocks, has fallen through for good, because Wanda paid only $25 million out of the $1 billion purchase price. Paramount’s deal with Huahua Media and Shanghai Film Group is foundering because Paramount hasn’t seen a red cent of the promised $1 billion. And more than a few people doubt whether Recon Holding’s $100 million deal to purchase 51% of Millenium Pictures will close.
Most – okay, all – of the lawyers who deal with China on a regular basis saw this coming from a mile away. Some context:
- Hollywood deals fall apart all the time. It’s the nature of the business, and hardly unique to Chinese-invested projects. But those deals have been getting more attention lately because so much of the money coming in is from China.
- Chinese investors have developed a not-completely-undeserved reputation as “tourist investors,” particularly when it comes to Hollywood: arriving with great fanfare, taking meetings with players across town, kicking the tires of every studio and production company that may be interested in Chinese investment (which is to say, every studio and production company in Hollywood), suggesting that a deal might be imminent … and then going back to China without agreeing to anything. See China Business Deals: What China Business Deal and China MOU. Like I Really Care.
- Because the Chinese yuan is a regulated currency, it’s always been difficult to get money out of China. We’ve been writing about this for a while, and in fact almost exactly one year ago I wrote a post in which I said, “Long story short, we can expect to see more US-China film deals fall through for lack of funding, and it won’t necessarily be the fault of the Chinese company.” Then my colleague Mathew Alderson wrote a three-part series of blog posts during the summer, followed by Dan Harris’ own five-part series in December. Chinese film companies are simply not free to do whatever they want with their own money; the government gets to decide.
- Chinese regulators are clamping down on any foreign investment deals, both because of the hundreds of billions of dollars leaving the country as capital flight, and because as a policy matter China wants to discourage “inefficient, uncreative Chinese companies that are simply achieving growth through acquisition.” Add to that increased scrutiny from U.S. politicians, and it’s not exactly Springtime for Renminbi.
Hollywood can bemoan the spigot being turned off, but there wasn’t nearly as much money coming in as was previously thought. It’s still not impossible to get money out of China, but you should say goodbye to buying sprees by Chinese companies snapping up Hollywood assets for no other reason than to convert their currency (cf: the scrapped sale of Voltage Pictures to Chinese metals company Anhui Xinke New Materials).
In light of the new reality, here are some tips on how everyone from studios to production companies to producers should proceed:
- Require the Chinese counterparty to pay a nontrivial amount of money upfront, and don’t begin performance until you receive it. If your contract doesn’t pass muster with Chinese regulators, you need to know as soon as possible. Your not receiving the upfront money is a really good sign that the deal itself will never work.
- If your deal is with a Chinese company with no presence in the U.S., don’t negotiate or draft it like a typical Hollywood deal. We review entertainment agreements all the time that are in English, governed by California law, and enforceable via arbitration or litigation in Los Angeles – and therefore virtually unenforceable against the Chinese party. You need an agreement written in Chinese, governed by Chinese law, and enforceable in Chinese courts. Do not fall into the trap of believing that because your counterpart Chinese company appears to have a tiny U.S. affiliate company that setting up your dispute for U.S. court resolution will work, because it almost certainly will not.
- Instead of fixating on money that your Chinese partner can transfer to the US to finance your slate of American films, start thinking about money that your Chinese partner can spend in China. Perhaps that means a shift toward co-productions in China. It might also mean more deals like the one for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter – ostensibly a buyout, but with profit participation for the production company.
- Consider forming a WFOE in China and having it becoming a profit center. China generally has no problem with WFOEs remitting money to their parent companies once all of the WFOE’s taxes have been paid.
It would be a mistake to assume this is just a temporary hiccup and that Chinese companies will be back investing huge amounts in Hollywood in a few months. China still has a ton of money, but for the foreseeable future, the money is staying in China.