Jack Ma goes to Hollywood, a Steven Spielberg production
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Wide shot of Alibaba’s campus in China. Pan across as workers walk past. Close-up of staff chatting happily.
Antechamber at Alibaba’s headquarters, Hangzhou - day.
Alibaba chairman Jack Ma and Hollywood director Steven Spielberg are seated around a low table. Thimble-size teacups rest on dainty saucers, a teapot sits on a wooden tray. Jack wears a white shirt, yellow cardigan. Steven has a grey shirt, blue cardigan. They both look as if they have been dressed by their mothers.
Jack: Steven, I really appreciate you taking the time to visit me all the way out here. I hope you enjoyed the campus tour.
Steven: My pleasure. It could make good scenery for a movie. (beat) So, Jack. How can I help you?
Jack: I want to make movies.
Jack picks up a tea cup, takes a sip, and slowly places it back on its saucer. He pauses, for dramatic effect.
Jack: (voice rises) I NEED to make movies.
Steven smiles and leans back in his plush red velvet seat.
Steven: (mimicking Jack) You NEED to make movies? Why do you NEED to make movies, Jack? You are doing very well already. Movies are a tough business. High risk. You could lose a lot of money.
Jack: Money? I don’t care about money. I have plenty of money. I’m the richest man in China.
Jack takes another sip of tea, and ponders how much he should reveal about his true motivations. He puts the cup down firmly, as if he has made the decision to tell the whole story.
Jack: (sighs) I built Alibaba with own hands, then listed it in the US. I made buckets of money. Everyone made buckets of money. But e-commerce isn’t cool anymore and selling stuff online is getting boring and profits are falling. I want to do something different. I have been spending billions to invest in start-ups, but they are all so incredibly tame. It’s just a lot of dull dating apps and fitness trackers. I’m even pretending to be excited about VR (virtual reality).
Steven watches patiently while Jack gathers his thoughts. He can see Jack has to get something off his chest, and he doesn’t want to ruin the atmosphere. Jack leans forward, as if to share a secret.
Jack: Movies, Steven. Movies aren’t boring, and we Chinese love Hollywood. You know the government restricts the amount of foreign films to 34 per year. So, the competition is limited, if you can get them in the door. I already bought a movie outfit, and we invested in Mission Impossible.
Jack leans back, crosses his arms.
Jack: But it’s not enough. That Wang Jianlin guy. Damn. He bought Legendary and owns more cinema screens than anyone else in the world. He’s a property man. Real estate! How can we get beaten by a real estate guy!? I NEED to make movies, Steven. I need to make movies.
Steven sits up. He’s moved by the passion and the desperation in Jack’s words.
Steven: I understand, Jack. I understand. But it will take a lot of money.
Jack: I have money, no problem. How much do I need?
Steven: (chuckles) How much do you have? 10 billion?
Jack: 10 billion yuan? No problem. Can I make a lot of really good movies with that? That’s about 1.5 billion dollars, is it enough?
Steven: Oh yeah, that’s enough. You can definitely make some movies with that.
Jack: Great! I will set up a big fund and start pumping money into movies. (smiling) I’m going to make movies. LOTS of movies.
Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly.