Why Jackie Chan Is The World's Second-Highest Paid Actor
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.
“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.
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% 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. 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 coproductions with Chinese companies, with Tranformers: Age Of Extinction and Iron Man 3 among the most successful examples.
“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 U.K.-controlled Hong Kong in 1954. His parents worked in the kitchen of the French embassy there before decamping for Australia. He later learned 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.
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. Whereas Lee was known for his grim demeanor and precise moves, Chan studied Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, honing his humor 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 out of 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, 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.”
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].”