Alibaba Is Breaking Into the Movies

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Chinese technology giant Alibaba is ready for its close-up. The massive company bought a 60 percent stake in ChinaVision for $805 million in March, an 18.5 percent stake in Youku Tudou last month, and recently unveiled a $1 billion public offering. Now, Alibaba has registered a company called Alibaba Pictures Group (formerly Alibaba Films Group). The directors of the company, according to the filing, are Dong Ping and Zhao Chao. Rumors regarding the company’s move into the movies have been swirling for some time, though it remains to be seen just what, exactly, they plan on doing.

Reuters reports that “Alibaba is preparing for its U.S. listing later this year, potentially the biggest ever tech offering, even as it maintains a steady stream of investments that has seen the firm and its affiliates invest more than $6.2 billion since the beginning of the year.”

Dong Ping is listed as the chairman of ChinaVision, and the massive ChinaVision investment gives Alibaba vast access to TV and film content. Youku Tudou, a mix of Netflix and YouTube, is just one of the video projects into which Alibaba has invested money; cable and Internet TV firm Wasu Media Holding Co. Ltd. and ChinaVision Media Group Ltd. are two others.

Alibaba is responsible for 80 percent of all e-commerce in China, and its move into entertainment, while currently ambiguous, will undoubtedly have far-reaching effects.

Alibaba’s swift ascendancy is indicative of the changing times in Hong Kong cinema. Hong Kong has a long and rich cinematic history, though recent years have been less luminous. As with American film, the ’70s were a turning point for Hong Kong: Mandarin film essentially wiped out Cantonese film for several years, until Cantonese television boomed in the mid-1970s.

Production Orange Sky Golden Harvet engendered a new age of martial arts films — serious films with real martial artists, not the camp favored by David Carradine’s Kung Fu. Bruce Lee became the new face of Chinese film. Though he’d only had minor supporting roles in American films, Lee rose to prominence with 1971′s The Fists of Fury, aka The Big Boss, creating the deluge of martial arts films into the West.

The ’80s were the golden age of Hon Kong cinema. Jackie Chan was a cultural phenomenon, mixing slapstick with martial arts in his late-’70s, early 80′s phase; he subsequently moved toward Western-influenced spectacles, which hit their peak with the dazzling Police Story series before he moved back to classic martial arts and comedy with his 1994 opus The Legend of Drunken Master (which is only available in the U.S. in a ravaged, censored cut that removes the darker bits of humor, including a tar pit black ending).

John Wood ushered in a movement of highly stylized action films with slow-motion gun play and a new portrayal of the anti-hero with The Killer and Hardboiled, two of the finest action films ever made.

The 1997 Asian financial crisis hurt the independent film community, and an over-saturation of Western-influenced,  mass-appeal blockbusters from mainland China diluted the brilliance of auteurs like John Woo (who moved to Hollywood, where he made the great Face/Off before hitting a creative speed bump). Mainland China has usurped Hong Kong and is predicted to be the world’s leading film market by 2018.

Though there have been some masterpieces (2000′s In the Mood for Love), Hong Kong cinema has more or less been in a slump. Alibaba Pictures Group, which is based in Zhejiang, suggests that the film industry is moving farther away from Hong Kong.

According to The Hollywood ReporterAlibaba “also set up a film investment fund called Yulebao, which has met its funding target of $11.77 million after just five days. The service likely could have raised tens of millions more had it not capped its initial investment round. In that time, 223,800 investors bought 785,500 shares in hot upcoming Chinese movie projects, like Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Wolf Totem and the next two installments of the Tiny Times franchise.”

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