E! Founder Larry Namer Is Much More Sensitive Than All That

Larry Namer, president and CEO of Metan Global Entertainment Group, a leading distributor of American entertainment content in China, got his start in the media business with New York cable TV-er Sterling Manhattan Cable, not in the boardroom or even the mailroom, but by actually laying cable. What began as a summer job for the economics major – in the sewers below Manhattan as an assistant underground cable splicer – morphed into a steady rise up the corporate ladder at Time Inc., the company that acquired Sterling. One thing led to another in the then-nascent cable-TV business as Namer followed the warm weather to Los Angeles. With his friend Alan Mruvka, he created a TV network named Movietime and a magazine called Movies USA that would eventually become E! Entertainment Television. Metan Global’s series Hello! Hollywood, a weekly entertainment news show for Chinese audiences that launched in 2009, is now available on over 40 television stations in China and six in North America, reaching over one billion Chinese viewers. Last year, the show partnered with TheWrap to add signature weekly reports and expand to popular online video platform iQIYI. Metan also teamed with top China production houses Mei Tian, H&R Century TV, and Warner Brothers International Television Production, creators of Gossip Girl, to develop a new teen drama series for China. Namer is also a co-founder of Chinese brand management company Mingyian. Under Namer’s direction, Metan and a coalition of North America’s top TV and film writers recently joined forces to launch Metan Wen Zhi Ku, a joint venture linking Western writing talent with transmedia projects for the China market. Rather than “play golf and go off into the sunset” after he and Mruvka sold their stake in E!, he preferred to keep busy. Very busy.

CFI: Your Wikipedia page says you are an “an entertainment and media entrepreneur who, along with Alan Mruvka, founded E! Entertainment Television and Movies USA magazine.” Larry Namer: Movies USA, that’s a lifetime ago. Those were good days. Hollywood was a lot different back then.

How did you make the transition from U.S. cable and digital entertainment to the Chinese market? What first drew you to the Far East? We had sold out most of the various media properties we had in the U.S. and I wasn’t quite ready to play golf and go off into the sunset. I had done a lot of stuff in Russia, and I began looking at China’s growth in the marketplace. It seemed like the perfect place to be. I actually got recruited seven years ago by a Chinese organization (State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, now the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film, and Television, SAPPRFT) that wanted to teach young Chinese TV executives how to cope with the changes that were going on in the media world, and so the journey began. Primarily we were in Shanghai and Beijing, doing these seminars. The first one I did, for instance, was kind of about how to conceive and develop soap operas. Commercial television was kind of new to these 25, 30-year-old students that took the classes. Before, you could do something passable on a state budget, but now as they began to commercialize, you had to pay attention to how the audiences would like it, sponsors would be comfortable putting their brand in it, those kinds of factors we discussed in the seminars. Up until a couple of years ago, I was spending two-thirds of my time in China, and now I am one-third there and two-thirds [in the US].

What is your philosophy with regard to approaching the Chinese market? The first thing that I looked at was why other Western companies had not been successful in that market, and one of the things that kind of stood out was the fact that the Western media companies would just try to take in things they did in other places, you know, like walk up to the Chinese and say, “Here’s a show that I do in Australia, and you could subtitle it, ‘___: China.’” That kind of thing wasn’t welcomed there. So these producers, especially American companies, they would be dumbfounded: “That show was a number one in the U.S., why wouldn’t they go for it?” And when I talked to the folks there that I worked with, who were kind of in the regulatory positions, they’d go, “Larry, how many shows on NBC are in Spanish?” I’d go, “None,” and so they’d say, “Well, we’re three times bigger than you, why would we want to put on shows that are not in our language and not made for our people?” And I said, you’re right, we don’t do that, the French don’t do that, a lot of countries don’t do it. Point taken. So the first thing that I realized is that if you are going to be in that market, you really need to pay attention and make sure that it’s specifically for the Chinese audience, and you have to make ’em in Mandarin. In studying the Chinese audience, I discovered it’s culturally different. People grew up there differently from us. In the consumer world, the money in China is much younger than anywhere else. I mean, people with money there are typically 25 to 40. They’re college-educated and they speak multiple languages. So number one, you had to deal with the age differences. And the issues of life maturity. A 15-year-old Chinese girl doesn’t date. A 15-year-old American girl has been dating for years. Kids here typically go away to college, they come back home and they travel to different places – they rarely know their grandparents intimately. In China, kids grow old with their grandparents. Mom and dad work, and the kid grew up with grandma and grandpa. There’s a respect for elders. And then there are the relative issues of violence in the two countries. You look at our TV shows, crime dramas and the like, you know, a guy runs into a movie theater with his submachine gun, that’s an everyday kind of thing here. You see it on television and we don’t think much of it. In China, that kind of TV show is science fiction to them. They’re like, Wait a second – how does a guy get a gun, much less an army gun. It’s unfathomable that someone can even get hold of an automatic weapon in China. So you just gotta be sensitive to those differences.

And how does that line up between Chinese morals and sensitivity and government regulation and censorship? Well, for us – meaning Metan Global – we steer clear of politics. I like silly comedies and crazy reality shows, stuff like that, so number one, the politics of China, quite honestly, is not my business. It’s the people of China. It’s kind of like when I would go visit my mom in Florida and I would say, let’s go eat Italian food at 8:30. She’d say, no, no, we are going to the deli at 5:30. And I’d say no, no, no, I don’t like that. And she’d say, Listen, in this house, we eat at 5:30; if you don’t like it, go to a hotel. And it’s not just China. It’s been that way in every country I’ve worked in – I’m a guest there. So we just go by that example: It’s their house. If I am in China, I gotta go by their rules. It’s not my business to try to reshape their society.

I understand that you are developing a China version of Gossip Girl starring Yang Mi. What are the ins and outs of casting with regard to entertainment for the Chinese audience? We’ve done a bunch of TV dramas there, we have not done Gossip Girl yet. The challenges with dramas are that in the beginning there wasn’t a wide range of properly trained actors there, but that’s changed. Now, the level of acting there is as good as anywhere, and there are some incredibly well-liked stars there who are appreciated in terms of how they get paid, so all of that stuff is the same in any country that is developing an industry. It matures, talent levels increase – the salaries increase too – but we cast there same as we cast here. There are managers and agents there, and they send us what we need in terms of tapes and reels, headshots, and so forth. We call in the people we want and then we deal with the manager/agent. Not very much different from the way we do it here. One of the only differences is that here you can’t be the agent and production company. In China, you sometimes have to go to a production company that has people under contract. Similar to the old Hollywood studio system, actually.

Speaking of that, in the U.S. the production centers are L.A. and New York. What is it like in China? It’s actually quite broad. Certainly, Beijing and Shanghai are the centers of the universe, but just the sheer size of China and there are 34 cities with over 10 million people – which is something that eludes a lot of people, 1.3 billion people is four times bigger than us. We’ve shot TV shows in provinces like Hunan, cities like Kunming, Chengdu, kind of all over. We’ve got a movie coming up that we’re shooting next summer in Xi’an. There are amazing studio facilities being built now in Qingdao, you could find all these cities with really quality facilities. Since the economic boom, they are all building their own media infrastructures. So if I wanted to shoot something in Sichuan Province, I could find facilities there as good as anywhere in the world.

You are involved with Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon, in a TV series. What can you tell us about it? Shannon Lee, who is a partner of mine in a TV project, has taken over being the steward of her father’s name and brand and she has been very protective of it. She is unbelievably true to what her father stood for. From my understanding of this film, these people (producers of Birth of the Dragon) went out and decided, hey we don’t need permission from anybody to do whatever we want with the Bruce Lee name. And Shannon didn’t want to have any part of that and didn’t agree to anything. I don’t think the people even sat down with her to discuss it. So she is doing what she had to do to protect that brand. Because it belongs to her. From what I heard about the movie, it wasn’t terribly flattering to Bruce Lee. On the other hand, Shannon, Keanu Reeves, Michael Benaroya of Benaroya Pictures, and myself, we’ve created a TV series called The Bruce Lee Project. You think of these challenge shows like American Ninja or Survivor, but in this scenario the challenges and competition are based on the philosophies of Bruce Lee. It’s not Define the Next Bruce Lee or Be the Next Bruce Lee, it’s about taking the things that Bruce stood for – he wrote lots of books about philosophy and things like that – and making it about being the best you can be and channeling that. And that’s what Shannon and I are working on. It’s TV, it’s not film.

There has been a spate of racial issues involving Chinese movies lately that was the subject of chatter. The Zhang Yimou film The Great Wall was hit with controversy regarding Matt Damon playing the so-called “white man savior” role; a Cameron Crowe film was cited for casting a caucasian actress with a Chinese name; and the Bruce Lee biopic Birth of the Dragon stirred similar controversy. What is your view about the “whitewashing” controversy? My view is personal and I am not speaking for Shannon or anybody else, but I think it’s lunacy to go back to the days where we think the Caucasian race is the center of the universe – it’s particularly topical now that we’re coming into an election and that very issue has kind of come up. If you go back in the history of Hollywood, the most famous Chinese character ever is Charlie Chan. Interesting that of the three different actors that played Charlie Chan, not one of them was Chinese. So I think that by casting Caucasians or making Caucasians the dominant figures clearly in places they were not is incredibly disrespectful. You take The Great Wall, I mean, do you really need to have a Caucasian to come and save China? Sure, they did it for box office reasons, but I don’t really think that’s a smart way to go. It’s clearly an American-centric view of the world, but again, with the elections coming up here, it’s kind of been pushed out there: are we a country of white Christians or are we an incredible mix of talent that’s come from all over the world? There are things America does great, there are things that China does great and you can celebrate those, but you don’t have to make it where the Wall revolved around a white guy.

Is China also a polyglot society? China has a lot of different ethnicities. Now you have a common language, Mandarin, so it’s a little bit more homogenized but people used to speak a lot of different dialects, depending on what region. But, yeah, it’s got a whole lot of different folks that are clearly different from each other depending on region. Americans make the mistake of lumping all Asians together. You can’t just take all of Chinese history and bring in the white guy to save people. I understand why they did it, it’s good box office, but it’s not the kind of stuff that I like.

So your Bruce Lee Project is not about “Bruce Lee’s Daughter Is Producing a Rival Biopic,” that’s a different thing, right? Shannon is doing some things that I don’t know a heck of a lot about, but she is being true to the brand. She is doing a movie but that is not us. We are doing a TV show that is not a biopic and it’s not about fighting. We have tested the title The Bruce Lee Project and it works quite well. One of the reasons we are launching in China is … if you think of a Broadway play. If I were launching a theatrical production, I wouldn’t do it on Broadway – too expensive, not practical. I would do it in Connecticut, not on Broadway. You get it right under the best set of economics and talent and then you take it to Broadway. We are looking at China and saying, number one, Bruce is Chinese. Let’s do it right in China, then bring it out to the rest of the world. It kind of changes our leverage when we open.

You have a background in digital entertainment. What do you think of the so-called “gold rush mentality,” in which Hollywood machers are supposedly running scared for fear of sharing the same fate as the Music biz at the hands of digital delivery? It’s a little bit different. When the digital world popped up and there was piracy and that stuff, the music industry focussed on fighting it, trying to stop the change. But what’s happened over the last 15 years is technology will change things whether you like it or not. So they have changed their business model and adapted. Now you have all these services, digital radio and on-demand that people are subscribing to and the music industry has reinvented itself. The visual entertainment world has learned something from that so that companies like Netflix, I look at it as, people will say, I don’t watch TV, I only watch it on the internet. But what are they watching? A half-hour of TV, whether they watch it on Amazon or whatever, as a creator, I’m going, I don’t care what wires you are getting it on, a one-hour drama is a one-hour drama, a half-hour sitcom is a half-hour sitcom. To the creator, it’s an irrelevant point. Again, the consumer doesn’t care about how it got to the screen. It got to the screen.The days when the TV networks controlled every pixel on the screen, those days are over. Technology marches on.

What else are you working on now? We’re in preproduction on a show that originally was an MTV show owned by a guy named David Russo, called Street Ball. It’s about basketball lifestyle, with basketball as the backdrop. You think about New York City, 2 ‘o’ clock in the morning, kids playing b-ball under streetlights. It’s a huge phenomenon – basketball is crazy off the hook in China. Everybody’s into it, the music, the lifestyle, the clothes – it’s region against region. So that show was on MTV some years ago, and David and I are reworking it so it makes sense for China. Metan Global Entertainment Group has got a few others that are in much earlier stages of preproduction and development. My favorite projects right now, we are in the early stages of a movie called Empress, about the first woman ruler of China. That subject has been dealt with numerous times on Chinese television and film, but this will be the first time it will be presented through Western eyes. We have Ron Bass, who won the Academy Award for Rain Man, writing the script for us now. It’s going to be a big one for us.

bout the Author: Noe Gold

Noë Gold previously was features editor at The Hollywood Reporter, executive editor of Movies USA, LA Family, Parenting OC, LA Times Custom Publishing, Bikini, Home Entertainment and Guitar World. He has been a Hollywood correspondent for Jing Daily and a columnist for the Village Voice and the New York Daily News. In 2015, Gold came on board to create the prototype for China Film Insider and manage the editorial during its initial phase. He is now China Film Insider’s Content Manager.