By Zack O'Malley Greenburg| Jul 29, 2015
The most powerful person in the Chinese film industry? Martial arts legend Jackie Chan, who has combined a government perch with a capitalist's attitude to make himself extremely rich
Ensconced in one of the most expensive suites in Beverly Hills, at the Montage Hotel, action movie star Jackie Chan seemingly wants to talk about how frugal he is. Decked out in a Jackie Chan-branded shirt emblazoned with his trademark dragon logo, he leads me into the master bathroom of his hotel suite and removes a worn bar of soap from a plastic bag, explaining that he took it from his room at the MGM Grand in Macau instead of wastefully discarding it: “This soap follows me around the world.”
Chan’s intended message is that he’s a conservationist—he’s lately been recording scads of public service announcements aimed at discouraging Chinese consumers from buying products made from poached tigers and rhinos. But the real metaphor within this bar of soap is how it—and, more specifically, Chan—straddles the US and China.
Once ubiquitous in Hollywood, Chan hasn’t had an American live action hit in five years. Yet, he’s earned an estimated $50 million over the past 12 months, more than any actor in the world besides Robert Downey Jr and enough to land him the No 38 spot in the Forbes Celebrity 100, right behind Tiger Woods.
What gives? He’s one of a select few with a true grasp of the fundamentals of the film business on both sides of the Pacific—and he’s using that knowledge, at the age of 61, to cut shrewd deals.
Take the film Dragon Blade. Never heard of it? Makes sense: It hasn’t been released in the US yet, despite the presence of well-known co-stars Adrien Brody and John Cusack. But it was a huge deal in China—grossing $120 million—and Chan, the film’s lead, cut himself a back-end deal that likely made him more than $10 million. Later this year, he’ll star opposite Johnny Knoxville in Skiptrace, an East-West co-production that has potential in both the US and China—and which Chan owns an outsize chunk of, based on his roles as actor and investor.
Meanwhile, he controls enough brand extensions to make Jay Z jealous—yes, Chan-branded merchandise, no small business when you’re the best-known martial artist since Bruce Lee—and also a Segway dealership and a cinema chain that bears his name. Between all the acting and all the owning, Forbes estimates Chan has amassed a net worth of some $350 million. Chan and his team refused to comment on specific figures.
“Jackie Chan is basically the Mickey Mouse of Chinese culture, a celebrity who is so omnipresent that his name has become shorthand,” says Grady Hendrix, co-founder of the New York Asian Film Festival. Since business success in China ultimately revolves around navigating or benefiting from the government, Chan has a secret weapon in all this earning: Membership in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a hugely influential government board. Beijing green-lights all films released in China.
It’s an increasingly powerful position. Chinese cinemas have grown at a nearly 33 percent rate over the past five years, generating just shy of $5 billion in 2014; in February, China’s monthly box office receipts actually surpassed those in the US. And while an American blockbuster can gross a quarter-billion dollars in China, the country’s powers-that-be often institute weeks-long blackouts of foreign films or slot them against one another on opening weekends. As a result, Hollywood is turning to co-productions with Chinese companies, with Transformers: Age Of Extinction and Iron Man 3 among the most successful examples.
All of which puts Jackie Chan right in the middle—a man known to his adoring countrymen as ‘Big Brother’. Without irony.
‘‘I always look at the map,” says Chan, outlining an imaginary globe. “Why this side is yours, this side is mine? Who designed the boundary? I think the world belongs to us. America belongs to me. China belongs to you.”
Chan’s upbringing is consistent with such global platitudes. He was born in UK-controlled Hong Kong in 1954. His parents worked in the kitchen of the French embassy there before decamping for Australia. He later learnt his father had been a spy for Taiwan.
Chan was sent to a performing arts boarding school in Hong Kong where he studied martial arts and acrobatics under teachers as merciless as a silver screen kung fu master. “You make a mistake, everybody get hit,” he recalls. “Sometimes they hit me for no reason.” He spent the years after high school bouncing between construction jobs in Australia and failed attempts to bust into the movies in Hong Kong. At 20, just as he got a telegram about a role in a new film, his parents gave him two final years to make his movie mark—an ultimatum that became irrelevant after he landed a bit part in the 1973 Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon.
__PAGEBREAK__Chan’s first challenge was to distinguish himself from Lee. To do so, he developed a personal style totally different from the legend to whom he’s most often compared. While Lee was known for his grim demeanour and precise moves, Chan studied Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, honing his humour and adopting a slapstick approach. “I wanted everybody to follow me,” says Chan. “I don’t want to follow everyone.”
Chan churned out Hong Kong hits, performing his own stunts and breaking dozens of bones (he nearly died after falling from a tree in Yugoslavia while filming the 1986 action flick Armour of God, which he wrote, directed and starred in). When China opened up in the 1990s, Chan was poised to profit, launching cafes, gyms and a successful singing career. In 1998, he started Jackie Chan Design, whose website currently peddles more than 400 different items from water bottles to watches—and claims all items “are designed exclusively by Mr Jackie Chan”.
Starting with 1995’s Rumble in the Bronx, Chan became a household name in America, too. With 1998’s Rush Hour, co-starring Chris Tucker, he became a global star—that movie had the most successful opening weekend for a comedy in history up to that point, eventually grossing $140 million in the US and another $100 million abroad. Though such a domestic-international split is typical these days, it was much rarer at the time. Recalls Chan: “The American box office was the whole-world box office.” Adds director Brett Ratner, “Jackie Chan is the greatest export China has.”
He parlayed that success into lucrative roles in other franchises like Shanghai Noon and Kung Fu Panda, while extending Rush Hour to three films (Ratner is now pushing for a fourth). But unlike, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who left Austria to become a quintessential American and never looked back, Chan always held tight to his Chinese fans, returning to Hong Kong to make the sort of films upon which he’d built his reputation, while also taking on more serious roles. “I wanted to be an Asian Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman,” says Chan.
He found a willing ally in the Chinese authorities, who recruited him to be an ambassador for the 2008 Olympics, and Chan soon moved his operations from Hong Kong to Beijing. Once domiciled there, he found himself at the epicentre of the burgeoning Chinese film industry—and the government that controls it.
Though Chan insists he must jump through the same hoops as any other filmmaker, there’s little doubt he’s got a better chance at getting movies made than most, as shown by recent examples like Skiptrace. “Because of the approval process and getting guaranteed distribution,” says Chan’s agent, Philip Button, “it was one of those opportunities that we worked on together, and it was a success.”
Chan’s closeness with Beijing— along with his occasional derisive comments about dissent in Hong Kong (“The authorities should stipulate what issues people can protest over”)—has earned him the scorn of democracy advocates like Emily Lau, chairperson of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong. “If you are someone who’ll always do and say what the authorities want,” she says, “maybe it’s easier for them to approve your ventures.”
Chan bristles at the criticism. “Should I not be close to the Chinese government?” he asks, raising his voice. “We are Chinese! I think everybody should love your country.” He argues that he’s helping shape an increasingly crucial part of the economy, such as through a recent recommendation to lower import taxes on movie equipment. “It’s a suggestion of how to improve the film industry,” he says. “They listen.”
There are about 20,000 movie screens in China, roughly half the number as in the US, despite having more than four times as many people. “If they had 45,000 screens,” says Ratner, “with their population, a movie opening in China could do $500 million in a weekend.”
Chan is already cashing in on that math. Five years ago, he and a partner built the Jackie Chan Yaolai International Cinema, a 17-screen multiplex in Beijing that now sells 50,000 tickets on big weekend days. That success led to a 50-50 joint venture to create 37 more theatres bearing Chan’s name, each with a stand selling the actor’s merchandise.
Chan is also expanding his JC Stunt Team into a film-services company that matches American studios with bilingual crew members in China, from stunt coordinators to assistant directors. “I slowly want to build a William Morris,” he says.
In the meantime, he’ll keep betting on Chinese films and American co-productions. “Now, I’m not only the actor. I invest,” he says, and while he won’t confirm our estimate of his earnings for this year, he’s happy to speculate on future projects with the confidence of a casino owner who knows the odds are stacked in his favour. “I might lose $10 million,” he says. “But if I win, probably $90 [million].”