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 U.S. 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 age 61, to cut shrewd deals.
Take the film Dragon Blade. Never heard of it? Makes sense: It hasn’t been released in the U.S. yet, despite the presence of well-known costars 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 coproduction that has potential in both the U.S. 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 declined 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, cofounder of the New York Asian Film Festival.
It’s an increasingly powerful position. Chinese cinemas have grown at a nearly 33% 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 U.S. As a result Hollywood is turning to coproductions with Chinese companies, with Tranformers: 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.
Starting with 1995′s Rumble in the Bronx, Chan became a household name in America, too. With 1998′s Rush Hour, costarring 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 U.S. 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 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 epicenter of the burgeoning Chinese film industry–and the government that controls it.
There are about 20,000 movie screens in China, roughly half the number as in the U.S., 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 theaters bearing Chan’s name, each with a stand selling the actor’s merchandise.
Chan is also expanding his J.C. 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 coproductions. “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 favor. “I might lose $10 million,” he says. “But if I win, probably $90 million.”