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Why Steven Spielberg Is Joining Forces With China's First Internet Tycoon

One is the biggest name in Hollywood, responsible for Oscar winners such as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List” and “E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial.” 

The other is a former English teacher whose Internet business made him one of China’s richest men and launched the biggest initial public offering in the history of Wall Street. 

On the surface, Steven Spielberg and Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma may not appear to have much in common — but now they’ve teamed up to try to make a splash in the global film business.  

Alibaba Pictures, the entertainment arm of Ma’s e-commerce giant, last week announced a deal to co-produce and co-finance movies with Spielberg’s entertainment company Amblin Partners. The idea, the executives said at a flashy celebration in Beijing, is to create films that will succeed in China’s burgeoning cinema market and in countries around the world. Alibaba Pictures will also take a less-than 5% equity stake in Amblin Partners, formerly known as DreamWorks Studios. Financial details were not disclosed.

Both executives hope to take advantage of China’s growing clout as the world’s second-largest film market next to the U.S. and Canada. Spielberg wants to use Alibaba’s massive marketing and distribution reach to promote his films in the world’s most-populous nation — starting with the stateside disappointment “The BFG.” Alibaba runs an online ticketing service called Taobao Movie, which is expected to serve as a powerful advantage for Amblin as it seeks Chinese moviegoers.

The new partnership is the clearest sign yet of Ma’s ambitions in the film industry as China looks to become a bigger player in entertainment. Ma is betting the cultural cachet of Spielberg will lend prestige to his film strategy and result in the kind of premium content and merchandise he can sell to hundreds of millions of Chinese customers through his e-commerce platform, streaming video service and set-top boxes.