27 Jan 011: Hollywood Made In China author Aynne Kokas
Today I interview author Aynne Kokas who wrote “Hollywood Made In China”. She talks about how to use your current network to find Chinese partners. She discusses the problem with the lack of transparency of Chinese capital movement as well as upcoming challenges in foreign content regulations.
She points out how the Chinese government thinks in 50-year plans and the pitfalls of American studios thinking in quarterly terms.
China Hollywood Greenlight Podcast – Episode 11 Aynne Kokas
Host: Caryn McCann
GUEST: Aynne Kokas
Author of Hollywood Made In China
Caryn McCann: Today’s guest is Aynne Kokas who is the author of Hollywood Made In China. She is also a fellow at the think-tank Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and an assistant professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. Kokas’ writing and commentary appear regularly in media outlets including the BBC, CNBC, NPR’s Marketplace, The Washington Post, and Wired. So Aynne, welcome to the show and thank you for coming on.
Aynne Kokas: Thank you so much for having me on Caryn, I’m really excited.
Caryn McCann: Great well I’ve told the audience just a little bit about you, but tell us more about yourself personally and about your business.
Aynne Kokas: Well I started being interested in the connections between China and Hollywood right after I graduated from college. During college, I actually lived in the Beijing Film Studio work unit. So, when the China Film Group was a state-owned entity, I actually lived in the studio dorms. And I became really interested in what that, the changes in the industry. So, at that point, Peter Loehr has just produced the Zhang Yang directed film Shower.
Caryn McCann: Oh yeah. I loved that.
Aynne Kokas: Yeah and my roommate at the time was the granddaughter of one of the old actors in Shower who had lived in the Beijing film studio for many years. So, a lot of her old friends and classmates came to our house and so I got to know people in the in the Chinese film community that way. And then I went back to the US and I was working as a management consultant for a while which was not as fun as hanging out with people in the Chinese film industry. So, I decided to go back and study for a year in the directing department at the Beijing Film Academy. So, I made a couple of extremely bad short films in Chinese and I was a finalist for a VJ position and MTV China and I started working in production and market entry analysis for the Huayi Brothers.
And so, that was really interesting. But what I a lot of my friends and colleagues were there and they were like, “Why are you – an American in China – doing this stuff? You should be in Los Angeles.” and I was like, “That is actually a great point.” So, then I went to I went to UCLA and I decided to study about Chinese filmmaking. So, I got a Ph.D. scholarship there. And while I was at UCLA I had the chance to work under Janet Yang for a couple of years. And then started going back and forth doing research about the Chinese film industry, attending the Shanghai International Film Festival, the Beijing Film Festival as well as forums that were emerging in Los Angeles at the time. So, that kind of formed the basis of a lot of the research for my book Hollywood Made in China which came out this past year. And that brings us to where we are today. And now my work focuses on the media policy issues between China and the US. So, the kind of concerns that US Congress has about Chinese investment and influence in the entertainment industry because that emerged as a major concern while I was doing a lot of my industry research.
Caryn McCann: That sort of leads me to my first question. Can you tell us what are two or three and now – there’s no it’s a typical day – but what are two or three main tasks you do on a typical day?
Aynne Kokas: Well it depends on the year. So, this year I’m a research fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. So, a lot of my time right now is spent writing and doing research. So, reading industry reports, reading analyses of – reading earnings reports from publicly traded media companies.
I also attend some congressional hearings here as well as different think-tank events. When I’m doing research, fortunately because I’m a professor, I have the chance to go and spend two or three months at a time in China attending film festivals, meeting with people, doing interviews with government officials and with producers and reconnecting with my colleagues and friends from when I was working more actively in the production process.
And then when I’m at UVA then I spend time teaching students, teaching the future leaders of the China Hollywood scene about what it means to be a co-production and Chinese government media regulations and the kind of long-term benefits and risks we have from these collaborations.
Caryn McCann: So, when you’re at these film festivals and you’re talking to the government it’s about the regulations. What are you talking to the producers about?
Aynne Kokas: Well I mean, I’m always curious to find out what types of projects people are making. Also, what types of trade-offs they’re willing to make in terms of the types of projects that get funded – the types of things that they’re even willing to pitch to government officials. Now a lot of times I can’t publish stuff about that and I don’t. So, if I’m interviewing someone and they say that something is off the record or something that they would prefer not to publish about – then I ‘m always very careful to not include that. But it’s helpful for me as a researcher to kind of understand the larger strategic challenges that that producer are facing. Typically, the stuff that I can eventually put on the record is when a deal goes really sour and then people are willing to talk about it – usually unfavorably about their partners. So, I also have to be careful with that as well.
Caryn McCann: So these are American and Chinese producers that you’re interviewing?
Aynne Kokas: Yeah. And actually, I started off doing more interviews with Chinese producers because that was actually where I started first working in the in the film industry. So, those are the people that I’ve known longer.
Caryn McCann: To expand on that – that sort of leads into my second question. But just a little background. You were a consultant for Warner Brothers Digital. As you mentioned you studied at the Beijing Film Academy. So, you’ve interviewed top American and Chinese executives for your book Hollywood Made in China. In these findings, how did the American film and TV executives find their Chinese business partners and how do you suggest the listeners find a Chinese business partner
Aynne Kokas: Well, this is really interesting because it was radically different from when I started doing my Ph.D. fieldwork in 2007 to when the book came out in 2017. In 2007 there were a lot of industry forums that basically because I was as a foreigner I would be let into the forums because you know they were trying to increase international representation. By the time I did my final fieldwork in 2016 there were kind of, it was much more carefully policed who could enter the forums and who couldn’t. And that was really reflective of the ways in which people found partnerships as well.
In 2007, for example, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) was really advocating and supporting film partnerships. So, it really was an interesting window for independent filmmakers to try to enter the market and find relatively high-level partnerships with people like the China Film Group or the Shanghai Film Group. As time progressed and the Chinese film industry began to grow rapidly, those partnerships began to dry up so is much more difficult for an independent filmmaker to get a high-level film partnership.
Now there are exceptions to that. You know people like Janet yang who have been who have been in the industry for a very long time have made successful independent film collaborations with major Chinese film groups. But more recently we’ve seen that it’s been major studios that have been able to successfully ink those deals. So, I would say at this at this particular juncture it’s really important to find people – first of all if at all possible to partner up with a with a major player because of the increased leverage that the Chinese film market has. Alternatively, I would say that some a way that actually I’ve gotten a lot of my interviews has been through alumni connections. So, that was really that was really an interesting angle in terms of being able to speak with people and kind of establishing more forthright relationships. So, for example, people who are – so I’m the professor at the University of Virginia – so I was able to you know, meet people and kind of establish more earnest connections through the University of Virginia alumni network.
Or as an alum of UCLA, the UCLA alumni network or University of Michigan – these are alumni connections are really important in China and that actually translates relatively well if you have no background and no connections and you’re trying to establish some kind of some kind of commonality with a potential partner, I would say that that’s a relatively safe route to go if you’re if you’re just starting out. And of course, you know long-term friendships are great too but I’m hesitant to say just rely on your long-term friendships with Chinese friends because presumably, that’s why people are listening to this podcast.
Caryn McCann: Of course, Okay well that’s a good tip you need to dig into those alumni networks. That leads to my next question. You know maybe people, obviously, you’re the exception – you went to the Beijing Film Academy and you’ve got these great academic connections. For people who don’t perhaps have those connections – that’s kind of an obstacle.
Aynne Kokas: Yeah.
Caryn McCann: Which goes to my next question which is what obstacle did you encounter past project how did you overcome it and what did you learn?
WHEN ‘YES’ MEANS ‘NO’
Aynne Kokas: Well there were many obstacles to completing this book. But I would say that an obstacle that may be similar to a lot of the listeners is really finding people that I could rely on. And that was and that’s something I mean, I’m from the Midwest. I’m very much Midwestern and I’m very earnest. You know, believe people when they when they speak to me. And actually one of the kinds of funny incidences in terms of this idea of reliability was I learned about the word when I was studying Chinese – there’s this word ‘Gaitian’（改天）and it basically means ‘at some point’.
And I kept getting people you know, both when I was trying to work in directing and production and also when I was trying to do research, where someone would say like ‘Oh gai tian, well do this thing or you can interview me.’ And I’d be like ‘OK, well great lets you know I’ll follow up with you next week and we can set up a date. And then the next week would come and they’d be like “Gai tian, gai tian.” I was like wait a second. At a certain point, I asked my best friend who’s from the Beijing Film Academy – I was like ‘So, you know this gai tian, I keep trying to pin them down.” And she was like “Well, that’s because that means ‘never’. You just aren’t smart enough to realize that when they’re saying ‘gai tan’ it means do not bother me about this.”
Caryn McCann: Okay so what did you do? How did you overcome that?
Aynne Kokas: Well I mean there are a couple of different ways. Sometimes you just try to do it – sometimes you just try to approach someone else. But other ways are, you know, look at – there have been times when I’ve turned that around where I found out that I actually was friends with someone else that person knew and then was able to request that friend to ask that person and then eventually they might you know given or change their mind. Not always but occasionally that worked better. But at a minimum it’s good to know that that is actually a stop sign rather than rather than merely a delay tactic, that’s good.
Caryn McCann: Good. You definitely need guanxi and persistence. Now that’s a that’s a problem that you dealt with. If you could magically solve two current problems, what would they be?
Aynne Kokas: I would say, first of all, the transparency of capital movement I think is a huge issue. So, understanding how much money it’s possible to get out of China. Getting you know, and making sure that that’s and then increasing that number – I think is a huge issue for people who are trying to work with Chinese partners in the US.
And then I think also transparency about regulations for foreign content. We’ve seen these kinds of really rapid transformations in distribution standards for foreign content happening really quickly. In the last summer having the foreign dramas on AcFun and Bili Bili (Chinese video sharing websites) being removed kind of almost overnight I think gave a lot of people pause about what the future of foreign content in China is among other among other things. But that’s one that comes to mind immediately.
We’re kind of dealing with this quota renegotiation right now as well which also poses some long-term strategic risks for people who want to bring foreign content into China. So, I would say that those are two major question marks that we’ll see what happens in 2018 and 2019.
Caryn McCann: And what about your own personal slate. If you have two problems you’d like to solve, what would those be?
Aynne Kokas: Ah well, I guess what I would love would be for to find a better way for researchers to work with producers, directors, and people who are involved in this space. Because I think that we – I had a really wonderful collaboration with Warner Brothers in which I learned a lot from them and hopefully they learned a fair amount from me. But it’s exciting to be able to have those conversations where you as a researcher you can take a step back and look at the kind of bigger picture and then you hear about the kind of issues that people are having on the ground as well. And I feel like at a very minimum I find it to be really enlightening and enriching to my work. And I hope that sometimes when I’m speaking with other people they’re able to take a longer view of things.
And one kind of example of that was in my work I look at five, ten, fifteen and twenty-year time trajectories and one of the things that were really interesting when I was working with Warner Brothers was the importance of these of quarterly increments and quarterly earnings. And the ways in which a lot of media and tech companies make decisions based upon their quarterly earnings – when especially in places like China that actually can really lead you down a bad path because the Chinese government and the Chinese media industries are actually looking at things at a very minimum in the increments of five-year plans. But actually, today I was just reading a report on informatization of the Chinese economy. This is the sort of thing I do during the day. But it was looking at from 2006 to 2020 how to digitize more parts of the Chinese economy. So, when you’re dealing with an economy and with the media system that is really oriented toward a much longer term, looking at things only from the duration of one project or you know quarterly earnings, can be very detrimental.
Caryn McCann: But originally you were saying you what you’d like to fix is the process of research or the way that researchers meet with directors and producers. What–
Aynne Kokas: I guess I’d like to increase the else for communication between the two parties in order to basically avoid – so what I try to do in my work and I tried to do it somewhat in my first book and I’m trying to do it even more in my second book, which is looking at digital platforms, digital distribution platforms, consumer-facing platforms and US companies and their engagement in China. It’s really trying to write things that are useful for an academic audience but that also have an important message to share for people who are really critically engaged in the practice of media collaboration.
Caryn McCann: Okay now this question is a bit theoretical. If you could do your career over again what would you do differently?
Aynne Kokas: Oh man that’s such a good question. Oh, I know. Okay, I would have totally studied computer science and more math. No, and I mean and I would probably want to do the same thing but with a much more kind of quantitatively oriented focus because what we’re seeing is you know a lot of studios are using AI and datasets that they gather about users in order to produce films. And I think that the intersection of technology and entertainment it’s really fascinating and actually this is something that I’m that I’m working on right now. So, I’ve actually started kind of taking computer science classes and I was working with a cybersecurity lab when I was a postdoctoral fellow at Rice, because I think it’s a really important direction for the future of the industry and I’m excited to see how that how that goes and how it develops.
Caryn McCann: That sort of leads to my next question. What are you trying to accomplish this year? Is there a look at another book coming up?
Aynne Kokas: Yes there is. There’s a book called Border Patrol on The Digital Frontier in which I’m looking at consumer platforms including Netflix and iOS and Facebook and Alipay and looking at how Chinese platforms are trying to enter the US market; US platforms are trying to enter the Chinese market and what that ultimately means about like our there about the borders of our digital world and do those exist? And how are they being created artificially by governments? And how are they being kind of pushed by corporations?
Caryn McCann: Okay that sounds great. I look forward to reading that.
Aynne Kokas: Oh I look forward to writing it. (laughs)
Caryn McCann: now this next question is a little bit kind of a trick question. What question did I not ask you that I should have?
Aynne Kokas: So one thing that I think is really important to ask all researchers is ‘why is your work important?’ and ‘what can I do for people in the industry and in policymaking?’ And that’s something that I always try to ask myself. And that is something that I hope that we’re able to kind of continue this conversation and I hope to ask my colleagues that as well. Because this is such a rapidly changing industry and it’s important both for people on the ground we’re making changes day to day and for people who are able to take a long view to collaborate. Because ultimately the US-China trade relationship in media is something that’s going to be developing and changing over the next 30 to 40 to 50 years. And let me tell you, the Chinese government has thought through the 50-year plan for this.
Caryn McCann: Right well thank you for that question. And thank you for giving us an answer to the question. That’s good to know. Now, this last question is what advice can you give those aspiring to tap into the Chinese market?
Aynne Kokas: Be humble.
Caryn McCann: That’s good because you always hear about the ugly American who goes in and thinks I’m just going to turn on the money tap and let the cash flow.
Aynne Kokas: Let me tell you I have I started creating a list of projects that were Sino-US collaborations when I when I was working on my dissertation. And so, I’d read the trades and I there’d be these lists of this project and this slate that was being created. And I would say less than I don’t know, probably a quarter of them ultimately were in the list of completed projects by the time I finished. And those that those are the projects that were completed and that had been announced. I mean obviously, there are other ones that are discussed and are never announced in the trades.
And then even on those projects that were completed, the discussions that I had with people who were involved with some of the projects suggested that there were some really big challenges that a lot of people faced. And a lot of it has to do with being open to listening and kind of working with your partners and also and also being very humble about what you know just so that you don’t necessarily get cheated as well.
Caryn McCann: Well it helps to have a good Chinese business partner and obviously, you’ve got to maybe tap into that alumni network like you mentioned earlier – use those connections. In conclusion, would you like to share any social media details or website links?
Aynne Kokas: Yeah absolutely. So please follow me on Twitter it’s at Shot in Shanghai and my website for my book as well as additional media that I’ve commented on and written is www.AynneKokas.com
Caryn McCann: Great. Aynne, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. You have some really great information and I’ve learned a lot and I’m sure the audience has too.
Aynne Kokas: Well thank you so much for inviting me I’ve had a great time chatting with you.
Caryn McCann: Okay thanks, Aynne. And we’ll see you at the premiere.
Aynne Kokas: Bye. Take care.
Caryn McCann: Thanks.
Three key points:
- Aynne mentioned she wished she studied more computer science and math. As she said – there is a huge intersection between technology and entertainment. More and more studios are using AI and datasets to gather information about the audience which will influence which films they make. This could be a growth area or at the very least –executives need to be tech savvy or have this kind of skill set on their team.
- Regarding long-term thinking. We all know American companies tend to be a little short-sighted compared to their Asian counterparts who look at 5-10-15 and in China’s case 50-year plans. For studios – this may be a wakeup call. As Aynne said when you’re dealing with an economy and with the media system that is really oriented toward a much longer term, looking at things only from the duration of one project or you know quarterly earnings, can be very detrimental.
- You need to be humble. American and Chinese ways of doing business are very different. In America, we tend to want to jump into business, do things the “American’ way. That doesn’t work in China.
- Use your network: It’s easy to forget you may already have a network you haven’t utilized – and that is your alumni network. I’m guilty of this myself. So, go to that reunion or mixer and start growing your network.
Now for the episodic part of this podcast – this is where I update you my progress with my projects and getting my own green light. I have some news.
- I heard from a producer who has a slate deal and is keen on one of my scripts.
- I sent a couple of scripts to two Chinese stars.
- And I contacted a manager who is known for being keen on Asian martial arts projects so wish me luck.
Lastly, I’m also looking for more guests for my podcast. So spread the word. And if you’d like to join the podcast or would like to recommend a guest – send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for listening to my podcast. To show your support – go to iTunes subscribe and leave a rating so other people can find this podcast. The more we work together – the more opportunities will be out there for everyone.
And I’ll see you at the premiere. Bye! Yī huǐ jiàn! 一会见!