February 11, 2013
There’s a new sheriff in town and his name is La.
OK, that didn’t quite have the gravitas I was going for. The point is that China’s New Year’s holiday week is over and the dominant organization of China’s film industry, China Film Group, has a new Chairman, La Peikang (喇培康).
La’s appointment to the PRC’s top film job signals a new direction and some interesting potential changes in the years ahead, both for Chinese filmmakers and distributors and their overseas counterparts. Namely, La’s extensive international experience overseas and in China’s co-production bureaucracy point to a likely increased focus by CFG on international cooperation and expansion.
Variously described by those who know him as “serious,” “educated and academic,” “quietly effective,” “well-liked” and “outward looking,” La could scarcely be more different than his predecessor, Han Sanping.
In the role he held for ten years, Han Sanping was a hustler, a mover-and-shaker who presided over the massive rise of China’s film industry from its status as a tiny backwater with a mere 0.7 percent share of the global box office in 2003 to its emergence as the world’s most dynamic movie territory, with a 10 percent (and rapidly rising) share of the worldwide pie in 2013.
I remember the early days of his tenure when Han Sanping would show up in Hollywood unknown and barely acknowledged, begging for meetings with studio execs, agents, movie stars, anyone who would pay attention. Most dismissed him in those days as unworthy of their time, because China was so negligible as a territory, let alone as a potential source of financing. But Han’s “Baqi” (霸气) loosely translated as “lord’s air” or “domineering spirit,” drove him to oversee the incredibly rapid modernization of the Chinese market, with the construction of 16,000 new cinema screens and a corresponding 2,700 percent increase in domestic box office receipts. Nowadays, thanks largely to Han’s contributions, China is on everyone’s mind, and it would be difficult to find a serious agent or executive who doesn’t know his name.
Given the legacy that Han created, La will find that the tables have turned and that studio heads and movie stars will eagerly, if not desperately, court his favor. Those who meet him will experience a completely different breed of Chinese movie czar. In contrast to Han’s bulldog approach, La is a more sophisticated executive, a fluent English and French speaker who is apparently viewed by China’s leaders as the right person to lead their country’s movie business to maturity and, they hope, to increasing global influence.
Before his appointment was announced, few anticipated that La would be the one to win the top job. It’s not that he lacked credentials—he was Deputy Chairman of the SARFT Film Bureau, and he had previously run an important CFG subsidiary, the internationally focused China Film Co-Production Company. But other candidates were more in the public eye, perhaps because they were more effective at outwardly promoting themselves.
When it came down to it though, it was La’s connections, his political skills, and his perceived loyalty to his Chinese Communist Party bosses that ultimately allowed him to prevail. He was chosen for the job by the Party’s ultra secretive, extraordinarily powerful Organization Department (中国共产党中央组织部), China’s political king-making office. Richard McGregor of The Financial Times described the Organization Department’s status thusly:
“To glean a sense of the dimensions of the Organization Department’s job, [imagine] a parallel body in Washington…that would oversee the appointments of every US state governor and their deputies; the mayors of big cities; heads of federal regulatory agencies; the chief executives of General Electric, ExxonMobil, Walmart and 50-odd of the remaining largest companies; justices on the Supreme Court; the editors of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, the bosses of the television networks and cable stations, the presidents of Yale and Harvard and other big universities and the heads of think-tanks such as the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation.”
This Organization Department controls more than 70 million party personnel assignments across the country, and it is no small matter to win their approval for senior party roles like La’s. Although, as McGregor wrote, “their vetting process takes place behind closed doors and appointments are announced without any explanation about why they have been made,” it’s not difficult to imagine intense lobbying, backbiting, mudslinging, and all manner of political fisticuffs. And La would have had to pass intense scrutiny– the Organization Department has access to dossiers and background checking capabilities that put the CIA and NSA to shame.
So don’t let La’s quiet, academic demeanor fool you; he’s undoubtedly as tough and effective as they come in China’s political bureaucracy. And that’s saying a lot.