The Education of a Mogulette

In the Hutong
American Idol while the Party Secretary watches
0001 hrs.

Wendi Deng has told Vogue that she will be collaborating with her pals Zhang Ziyi and Florence Sloan to establish a new film production company based on the DreamWorks model. The first project of the unnamed venture is apparently an adaptation of Shan Sa’s novel The Empress, and Ms. Deng dropped the name of Ridley Scott as a possible director.

Let us set aside for a moment the fact that DreamWorks SKG was built on the collective talent, track records, and Hollywood street credibility of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. Ignore for a moment that whatever the strengths Deng, Zhang, and Sloan bring to the table, they are simply not in the same league as the the DreamWorks founders. All of that doesn’t matter: with the support of Rupert’s money and Zhang’s screen success, they will likely get some movies made.

You may also remember that MySpace China was publicized as Ms. Deng’s deal. From Joseph Kahn’s piece in The New York Times last June:

Wendi Murdoch has stepped up her role in China. She plotted a strategy for the News Corporation’s social networking site, MySpace, to enter the Chinese market, people involved with the company said. The News Corporation decided to license the MySpace name to a local consortium of investors organized by Ms. Murdoch.

There is a pattern to all of this, an internal logic.

Ms. Deng is not a News Corporation executive. She plays no official role in the business. When she helped put together the MySpace China deal (assuming, of course, that her participation was real and not some form of positioning), she was basically doing it as The Boss’ Wife, as News Corporation laobanniang. That would probably rankle anyone who had an MBA from Yale and a little ambition, so it probably rankled Ms. Deng.

The venture with Zhang and Sloan – let’s call it QueenWorks – gives Ms. Deng more than a project on which to occupy her time. It is her first real job since marrying her husband, and her first shot at running her own gig. It is also her shot at a lasting piece of the action, a legitimate business she can build independent of News Corporation that she can use as the foundation of her own media organization. It makes her something more than Mrs. Murdoch, and yet she carries that cachet into every meeting she walks into.

Providing she is serious about it, providing it is not simply a toy for a bored wealthy housewife, she could actually make something out of the organization. Either way, what we will have will be a litmus test: given a wealthy backer (her husband) and interesting partners, is Wendi capable of running a successful business?

This is an important question to News Corporation. If Wendi can prove herself an able executive in her own Hollywood operation, it gives her considerably more credibility at a later date when the complex issue of Rupert’s succession comes up. It is one thing for the spouse of the boss to seek a role in the business. It is another entirely when that spouse also has made her bones as a successful businessperson.

This new venture will bear watching.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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