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China’s Bona Film to Invest in ‘Avatar,’ ‘Deadpool’ Franchise Titles via Chip Seelig Deal

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Chinese studio Bona Film Group has struck a deal with U.S. financier TSG Entertainment Finance to invest in a slate of upcoming Hollywood franchise movies. The deal is understood to include upcoming “Avatar” and “Deadpool” titles.

The agreement, signed on Dec. 31, is described as an extension and expansion of a relationship between Bona and TSG that began in 2015. The financial terms were not disclosed.

Through the earlier deal Bona committed to providing $235 million to co-invest with TSG in a slate of films including “The Martian,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “The Greatest Showman,” “War for the Planet of the Apes,” “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” “Alien: Covenant” and “X-Men: Apocalypse,” most of which were distributed through 20th Century Fox.

Such co-investment slate financing deals tend to provide studios with a degree of risk management. The financiers are mostly passive investors who have little or no say in the film’s creative process, but across a portfolio of titles can expect to earn a respectable margin.

China-U.S. slate deals were plentiful in the mid-2010s, when Chinese companies were active in Hollywood as investors, finance partners and potential acquisitors. But much has changed since 2018, when the Chinese government put the brakes on what it considered to be excessive dealmaking.

In the interim, the U.S. and China have engaged in a trade and technology war that has slimmed cross-border business dealings. And the rise of streaming has forced consolidation among studios – among those moves Fox was swallowed by Disney.

At the same time Hollywood films have become significantly less successful in Chinese theaters than they were before the pandemic. And Chinese titles have come to dominate the country’s own theatrical and streaming markets to such a point that the long-standing import quotas may have fallen into abeyance.

Bona, which is among just a small number of studios to have successfully negotiated the last few years of the Chinese industry’s own turmoil, has been a major purveyor of commercial, patriotic titles, sometimes known as ‘main melody’ films.

But the company has not been immune to moments of drama. The outfit’s founder Yu Dong borrowed massively to finance Bona’s delisting from NASDAQ in 2016. But his plans for a quick IPO on a Chinese stock market remained thwarted until August 2022, when he was finally able to list the company in Shenzhen. Bona was an investor in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” but the film’s release in mainland China was held up by a complaint from Bruce Lee’s daughter about the film’s mocking depiction of her father. (Bona also cherrypicked other titles including James Gray’s “Ad Astra” and Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Walk Home,” which it released in its own theaters.)

“We are very excited to continue our eight-year partnership with TSG,” said Yu, Bona’s founder, chairman and CEO. “Through this expanded venture, Bona will become a new participant via TSG in the ‘Avatar’ and ‘Deadpool’ franchise and continue our involvement in ‘The Planet of The Apes’ and ‘Alien’ franchise in addition to many other dynamic upcoming films.”

“I am thrilled to continue our partnership with Bona and Yu Dong, one of our oldest and most important relationships in the film industry. The Chinese market provides us with rare opportunities, and we also hope to help further develop the Chinese market,” said Chip Seelig, managing member of TSG Entertainment. He previously headed Dune Capital, an earlier slate financing partner of Fox.

The Chinese box office market staged an 83% comeback in 2023, compared with a miserable 2022. But it remained some 15% lower than pre-COVID levels. A December 2022 release, “Avatar: The Way of Water” earned some $240 million in Chinese theaters.

At RMB7.29 per share, Bona has a current market capitalization of $1.4 billion (RMB9.91 billion).