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Trans-Pacific TV

Most of the buzz in Hollywood about China focuses on the big guys, such as Walt Disney Co.’s co-production agreement with a mainland studio and its plans for a $5 billion Shanghai resort. But industry veteran Larry Namer and his Woodland Hills production company, Metan Global Entertainment Group, are proving there is plenty of room for the little guys as well. Metan has had a presence in China since 2009 with its flagship entertainment news program “Hello Hollywood,” a show filmed locally that focuses on celebrities, pop culture and lifestyle coverage with Asian appeal. And this month it will start filming a Chinese-language version of the popular American television series “Gossip Girl” for distribution to laptops and mobile devices. Namer noted that the English-language version of the show was so popular with Chinese women that they tried to emulate how the characters dressed. “It was the number one driver of fashion choices of women under 35 in China,” said Namer, 66, founder of the cable channel that later became E! Entertainment Television. What’s more, production is moving forward on Metan’s first entry in the reality format, “The Bruce Lee Project.” Other programs from Metan include “Modern Life,” a web sitcom about six friends living in Beijing, and documentary “Linsanity” about Chinese NBA guard Jeremy Lin. The company is accomplishing this so far with a staff of just six and a handful of student interns in Woodland Hills. It also has offices and 20 full-time employees in Beijing and Shanghai. Rob Cain is a partner in film co-production company Pacific Bridge Pictures, in Los Angeles, who writes the Chinafilmbiz.com blog. He said that with more Chinese coming online and seeking digital content there is a lot of opportunity for even small companies if they have high production skills. “It is valuable in the Chinese market,” he said. Massive potential China is the world’s most populous country and has drawn keen interest from U.S. entertainment companies. Strict government regulation and cultural differences make it a challenge, but the opportunities can prove lucrative. The China box office gross for feature films totaled $4.8 billion last year, a 36 percent increase from the previous year, according to Artisan Gateway, a cinema consulting firm in Shanghai. Aside from Disney, Valley studios making inroads into China include DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. with its Oriental DreamWorks joint venture to produce films and the $2.4 billion Dream Center to open in 2017 in Shanghai. Universal Studios has plans for a jointly owned $3.3 billion theme park on 300 acres in suburban Beijing to open in 2019. Metan, of course, is much smaller than these entertainment behemoths and so must take a different strategy. That is what led to “Gossip Girl,” said Namer, who travels to China every two months or so for visits lasting three to five weeks. While large global production companies such as Endemol Shine Group, the producer of reality show “Big Brother,” go after reality programs that are easy to adapt for different countries, a drama like “Gossip Girl” is more difficult to translate for a foreign audience. But it offered a way to keep from getting crushed by the big guys. “They’ll catch on in a few years but by that time hopefully we are no longer the little guy on the block,” Namer said. Metan received a rights deal from Warner Bros. Television International to produce the Chinese version of “Gossip Girl” in 2012. The company then spent three years getting the scripts correct to maintain the feel of the U.S. version yet conform to audience tastes and customs. “It went through many iterations before we felt it was right,” Namer said. The U.S. version of “Gossip Girl” centers around the social scene of a group of girls attending Constance Billard School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It ran on The CW network from 2007 to 2012. There were also versions made for Turkish and Mexican television. For the Chinese market, Metan aged the characters a few years and made them university students in Shanghai rather than in prep school. The show will not depict drug use or get into politics. The story lines will focus on how the characters balance their family, social and spiritual lives. “That theme plays more in the Chinese show than it would in the American version,” Namer said. Cain said it is tricky to adapt shows for the Chinese market, where there are different cultural sensibilities and heavy oversight by regulators. “Every script that will be produced has to be approved by the government,” he said “Gossip” will be filmed in China, where production costs are significantly lower than in the U.S. A one-hour drama can cost $250,000 to $300,000 per show while a half-hour sitcom carries a $75,000 price tag. Namer is doing what he can to maximize revenue. The show will have an ecommerce tie-in to maximize the incoming yuan. It will include links that will pop up on the devices so viewers can purchase outfits the characters wear. Cable connection Namer is a New York native who came to Los Angeles in the 1980s to work in the cable industry. A few years after arriving he and business partner Alan Mruvka came up with an idea for a cable channel, Movietime, for airing entertainment news, interviews and awards coverage. The venture got off the ground in 1987 and Namer served as president during a period when cable companies invested in the fledgling channel. Renamed E! Entertainment Television LLC in 1990, first Time Warner Inc. and later Comcast Corp. starting in 2006 became the owners of the network with Namer having sold his stake and moved on to other ventures. He would start other companies including Steeplechase Media and Comspan Communications that brought Western forms of entertainment to the former Soviet Union. Metan Global was started in 2009 with Namer and three partners putting up their own money. Self-financing was a tactic he had learned from his days with E! With no outside money, there would be no competing agendas. Besides, Namer said that if he and his partners had tried to raise money with their idea of making content for China their valuation would have been low and believability at zero. “It was better to go it alone and not have to jump every time the investors did not like the quarterlies,” he explained. This year, he expects Metan to be profitable with revenue up to $9 million. Past years were not profitable because the company was spending money to develop programs that had not been broadcast yet. “This year the shows are hitting the air so there is revenue against what we spent last year,” he said. Just as in the U.S., the Chinese television market is divided between traditional terrestrial stations, satellite, cable and Internet streaming. Total television advertising last year brought in revenue of $6.9 billion, with terrestrial broadcasting accounting for 95 percent of that amount, according to a report from PwC, the global accounting and consulting firm. Metan, however, has other ideas in how to reach its audience of college-educated urban dwellers with money to spend by distributing its shows digitally for viewing on laptops and mobile devices. PwC numbers bear that out. Its report on China found that 80 percent of monthly Internet users are between 18 and 34 years old. “The laptop has become a giant DVR. They get to watch what they want when they want it,” Namer said. “Hello Hollywood” started on terrestrial broadcast and migrated online. “Gossip Girl” and “The Bruce Lee Project” will air exclusively online. “Modern Life,” an original 12-episode web series about young people living communally in Beijing (think “Friends” meets “The Big Bang Theory”), averaged 4 million viewers per episode its first season. Metan does not charge for content. Its distribution relies on advertising, which is shared with the broadcast outlets airing his programming, such as CCTV-8, Hunan Satellite Television, and video sharing websites Tudou.com and iQiyi. Ads are aimed at an audience of urban college graduates. Creative regulation Metan’s next big show, “The Bruce Lee Project,” is based on the philosophy of Lee, who died in 197. It will be a 13-episode competition reality show featuring 16 contestants who will live, train and compete in a communal house and be judged by eight mentors in mental, physical and emotional challenges. The show was the idea of Stephen Hamel, a partner with actor Keanu Reeves in Company Films, a Santa Monica production company making films for the Chinese market. “It is now about how big your muscles are but your mind, body and spirit. The winner will have to exceed in all three of those,” Hamel said. Company Films, Metan Global and Shannon Lee, daughter of Bruce, are production partners for the show, which in each episode will feature a high-profile devotee of Lee. Reeves, whose 2013 directorial debut “Man of Tai Chi” was a martial arts film, will be featured in the show. Hamel said he chose Metan as a partner because of the company’s existing connections in China. “You cannot just show up and say, ‘Here I am.’ You need infrastructure, you need strategy. Otherwise it is enormously difficult,” he said. Metan expects to export “The Bruce Lee Project” to other markets, perhaps a first for a country where reality shows are based on shows from elsewhere. But by building the show around Lee, Namer said it all but assures that it cannot be copied. “There is only one Bruce Lee,” he said. “There is nobody that has got the image and status that Bruce has.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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