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Alibaba Executive Chariman Jack Ma and Amblin Partners' Steven Spielberg. Credit: Alibaba
Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma and Amblin Partners’ Steven Spielberg. Credit: Alibaba Pictures

Alibaba Pictures, the film and television arm of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, is teaming up with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners to finance, produce, market and distribute films in China and around the world.

The deal, which both companies said was a first for them, opens a gateway for Amblin into the highly regulated Chinese film market. Alibaba Pictures will be Amblin’s marketing and distribution partner there, helping get Amblin’s titles like The BFG and The Girl on the Train in theaters and distributing them digitally through its streaming service Youku Tudou.

Alibaba Group is the largest shareholder of Alibaba Pictures’ stock, which is traded publicly on the Hong Kong stock exchange. Amblin and Alibaba will leverage customer data from Alibaba’s more than 434 million users to market film projects in China.

The two companies held a press conference over the weekend in Beijing to announce the deal. Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma said at the event he hopes this partnership can help bridge differing values between China and the West.

“We may have cultural differences but the human values are the same,” Ma said, according to a recap of the event by Alibaba. “When I see movies, I see the human part of it. That’s why I love Steven’s movies. It’s not just high tech. We want to see the human part of it.”

zhang-wei
Alibaba Pictures President Zhang Wei. Credit: Alibaba Pictures.

As part of the deal, Alibaba Pictures will get a minority stake in Amblin and a seat on its board. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Alibaba Pictures has upped its investments recently and increased its focus on bringing global blockbusters to China. In the past year, Alibaba has invested in blockbuster films such as Star Trek Beyond and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.

Alibaba’s entertainment offerings mirror those of one of its chief competitors: Amazon. Like Alibaba, Amazon has its own streaming service, and it also develops original movies and television series through its Amazon Studios division. Alibaba Pictures recently launched a new program called Project A to nurture a new generation of young filmmakers worldwide. Amazon encourages people to submit movie and series scripts and concepts where they can be reviewed publicly and privately.

Finding a local partner is starting to look like the best way for foreign film and television companies to gain a foothold in China. Both Disney and Apple were shut down by Chinese regulators earlier this year. Last week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said at a New Yorker event the company is focusing on other parts of the world before it makes a run at China.

Alibaba had been looking to team up with a Hollywood studio for some time, and started talking with Amblin earlier this year. Alibaba Pictures President Zhang Wei said in an online Q&A on Alibaba’s news site that many studios just want investors to bring in money, but Alibaba wanted to be a partner in creating and distributing quality films.

“This approach to me was refreshing and different. It was the belief in partnership that really brought us together, the sense that we had similar visions and beliefs rather than just resources the other side needs,” Wei said. This is not just a financial investment. Both companies have a shared vision of powerful storytelling to a global audience and believe this partnership will position us for long-term growth.”

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