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China taps Japanese comedy giant Yoshimoto for showbiz coaching

Entertainment school will groom talent for global stage

Yoshimoto Kogyo offers a variety of programming, including the popular "Shinkigeki" (New Comedy) show, as it looks to expand into China.   © Kyodo

TOKYO/DALIAN, China -- A Chinese fund that invests in movies, theater and other entertainment is teaming up with Japanese comedy powerhouse Yoshimoto Kogyo to build a performing arts trade school, aiming to cultivate talent for the global stage and give both countries a boost in cultural soft power.

China Media Capital and the Japanese talent agency also plan to develop or repair theaters, cinemas, broadcast stations and other outlets to provide graduates with platforms to ply their trade not just in China, but also Indonesia and other Southeast and Central Asian markets, in a media analog of Beijing's Belt and Road economic bloc-building initiative.

Despite great growth in China's entertainment industry, most of its movies, plays and TV shows have been aimed squarely at the home market, owing to factors including the central government's strict regulations and the sheer size of that market. As a result, the country's media schools have so far trained little international talent.

CMC chief executive Li Ruigang, who has been called "China's Rupert Murdoch" after the Australian-born media mogul, told Nikkei recently the partnership would lead to "cooperation in developing various businesses, not just in China and the rest of Asia, but the global entertainment market."

The vocational college, with locations initially set for Beijing and Shanghai, will have a capacity of about 100 and offer programs of up to two years. Besides actors and actresses, it will train producers and directors for movies, television and theater, plus sound and lighting technicians and creators of animation and computer graphics. Advanced media technologies like virtual and augmented reality will also be studied. Starting out, much of the student body is likely to be Chinese, but applicants will be welcomed from Japan and elsewhere in Asia as well.

CMC, founded by Li in 2006, owns domestic business media outlet Caixin and Hong Kong broadcaster Television Broadcasts Limited, or TVB. It also holds stakes in soccer clubs, video streaming services and more. The company has worked in making movies and animated features as well as distributing Chinese movies abroad, and its credits known in the West include an entry in the "Kung Fu Panda" franchise. In July, CMC raised about 10 billion yuan ($1.44 billion) from investors including tech companies Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings, plus real estate developer China Vanke.

Li Ruigang, chief executive of China Media Capital. Li Ruigang, chief executive of China Media Capital.

Li said China's media and entertainment sectors are bound for rapid development, and its school with Yoshimoto would fill an "urgent need" for training talented individuals to aid that expansion. "We aim to develop the entertainment industry to the next level with Yoshimoto's help," the CEO said, adding that combining CMC's know-how with the Japanese company's strength in cultivating talent and using it to creating business would "let us invest more efficiently in personnel and other management resources."

Yoshimoto will design courses for the school with help from a Japanese trade school operator, the Jikei Group of Colleges. "We'll have talent from Hollywood and Broadway as teachers, along with Yoshimoto entertainers," said Hiroshi Ozaki, the company's president. The idea is to use CMC's international network to help build the entertainment outlets where graduates will work.

In 2014, Yoshimoto set up a company called MCIP Holdings to serve as a base for a broader Asian push in markets like Indonesia, with investment from the likes of advertising giant Dentsu and the public-private Cool Japan Fund. The aim was to promote Japanese comedy in Southeast Asia, including through dispatching a team of young entertainers to seven countries and regions to perform manzai comedy acts in local languages.

The business has struggled to find a foothold in China, however. Yoshimoto is working with CMC to "hurry the expansion of our Chinese business," Ozaki said.

A movie is filmed in China's Shandong Province. Though China's entertainment industry is growing, most of its products are geared for the huge domestic market. (Photo by Daisuke Harashima) A movie is filmed in China's Shandong Province. Though China's entertainment industry is growing, most of its products are geared for the huge domestic market. (Photo by Daisuke Harashima)

According to Chinese entertainment research firm Entgroup, the country's 2017 box-office receipts grew 20% year on year to 55.9 billion yuan, making it the world's second-largest movie market after the U.S. Though the movie industry has been rattled by recent incidents, including the four-month disappearance of star actress Fan Bingbing amid a tax-evasion scandal, further growth is expected in the medium to long term.

The industry's growth has stirred aspirations of becoming actors, directors and other players in increasing numbers of Chinese young people. The country has a number of regional schools for such hopefuls.

"I'd like to someday make a work whose name goes down in movie history," said one 21-year-old aspiring director, who is studying cinematography at Sichuan Film and Television University while developing a sharper aesthetic sense by watching the works of cinema masters.

The department of film and related studies at the Sichuan Province school welcomed about 1,000 new students for fiscal 2018 -- roughly double the figure from five years earlier. "With the industry expanding into areas like merchandise sales, several million people now work in the sector," said a school official.

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