Let’s Put on a Show for China
The show featured talent from China, Tan Weiwei and Li Yuchun, two winners of China’s Super Girl contest — a competition that attracts a far larger audience than “American Idol.” Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong martial arts superstar who is also a singer, was in the lineup. As were Kanye West and Gnarls Barkley from the United States. A-Mei from Taiwan sang.
The international stars were brought together over two nights at the Aladdin/Planet Hollywood Resort in Las Vegas to do the show, which was recorded there and shown the next night and for five more nights in China by Hunan TV.
It was the kind of collaboration that in the past might have been achieved only by vast multinational entertainment companies working with Chinese government ministries and the State and Commerce Departments in the United States.
But the show was put on by AOB Media, a small two-year-old company, with employees in Pasadena, Calif., and Beijing, assisted by independent digital film and music video producers in Santa Monica.
“People did not believe this would actually happen,” said Nelson Liao, founder and chairman of AOB Media, one of a group of companies he has started over two decades.
“Marketing companies here and in Las Vegas didn’t want to accept my job,” said Mr. Liao, who was interviewed at AOB headquarters in Pasadena. “They thought it would be a waste of time, that I would default.”
Yet the show went on and was a success and now AOB Media will do shows featuring Chinese and American entertainers again and again, said Carrie Wang, the chief executive. “We are going to put on a show in September and another for the U.S. calendar New Year, and in 2008, we will again have a show done here in Los Angeles for the Lunar New Year with artists from East and West,” Ms. Wang said.
The Fusion division of AOB Media, which stages the shows, has a contract to produce extravaganzas for the next four Lunar New Years.
Ms. Wang was interviewed on a brief visit to California from her base of operations in Beijing, where she supervises 120 employees and nurtures partnerships with the giant Citic Group (formerly the China International Trust and Investment Corporation), Hunan TV, China Central Television and Red TV, which distributes entertainment on buses, taxis and transit systems in major cities. Hunan, CCTV and Red are government-owned, like all broadcast media in China.
In a career of more than a decade, Ms. Wang has led marketing and management efforts at many trading and development companies in China. She is a Chinese citizen who has a residence near Pasadena.
Colleagues at AOB, which has 25 employees in the Los Angeles area and a number of contract relationships in the entertainment industry, credit Ms. Wang’s connections in China with making the Las Vegas show possible.
“It was an incredible achievement; we put the show together in nine months,” said David McKeon, executive vice president of AOB Media. Mr. McKeon is a Los Angeles native who worked in telecommunications in South Korea and Hong Kong before joining AOB and producing a concert last year in Taiwan.
Those nine months, however, were the culmination of more than 15 years of steady business effort, Mr. Liao said, an evolution that holds object lessons for other companies, large and small, that are eager to do business in China.
Mr. Liao, a native of Taiwan, came to the United States in the early 1980s and earned a master’s of business administration degree from the University of New Haven. He first went to China in 1990 as a marketing representative for American companies in pharmaceuticals and other industries. But he soon got into a joint venture in construction materials with Citic, the state-owned conglomerate that runs 45 companies. That changed his status in an interesting way, Mr. Liao recalled.
“From that time, the Chinese say I’m a real person,” he said. “Before that, they say, ‘You’re not real because you’re a briefcase company — you can run away anytime.’ They want you to commit to a long-term relationship.”
The connection with Citic led Mr. Liao to found one of his companies, AOB Commerce, which raised money in the United States to lend to Chinese entrepreneurial companies.
“In China there is no financial industry yet — no venture capital and no inventory lending for small business,” Mr. Liao said. So his company provided a loan brokering service to fill the need.
In 1994, he met Ms. Wang, who among her other activities managed Chinese entertainment artists. Over time, they conceived the idea to add a media company to Mr. Liao’s diverse holdings and started AOB Media in 2005. “China will open up to the world’s media,” Mr. Liao said, “but for right now government control is most sensitive to media.”
Kyle Jackson, a digital film producer, who designed and produced the Las Vegas show for AOB, said that Hunan TV temporarily kept the Gnarls Barkley segment off the air because one of the musicians had tattoos on his arms. Ms. Wang practiced some diplomacy and the Barkley segment was restored.
“China is different from most other countries,” said Christian Swegal, a music video director and associate of AOB Media who helped line up the American talent for the Las Vegas show through the William Morris Agency. “It prefers contemporary Chinese music to global pop stars. You don’t find American and global entertainers featured on radio and television. Everybody thinks China is a big money market, but that isn’t the case.”
Big companies are eager. MTV, part of Viacom, has been in China for years and is co-producer of an annual music honors show with CCTV, the state network. The News Corporation has its Star TV satellite service broadcasting in China. Walt Disney has ambitious plans, including theme parks and a Dragon Club updating of its old Mickey Mouse Clubs.
The promise is there, but it requires long-term planning — as AOB Media’s success attests. The Lunar New Year show was more a cultural breakthrough than a money-making one.
“The show cost $1.3 million to put on,” Mr. McKeon said, and the company hopes to break even through a share of advertising revenue from Hunan TV and cellphone excerpts that are being prepared. “It was an investment to establish trust.”