China’s box office through the first three quarters was up 35% from last year, with contemporary-themed Chinese films drawing particularly large audiences.
Yu Dong, chief executive of Nasdaq-listed Chinese movie studio and distributor Bona Film Group, was in Los Angeles this month for the Asia Society’s U.S.-China Film Summit and meetings with Hollywood partners, including Fox International Productions.
We caught up with him to talk about the state of the market and his studio’s plans for 2014. Bona had a number of hits in the third quarter, including the romantic comedy “My Lucky Star,” the mixed-martial arts tale “Unbeatable” and “Out of Inferno 3D,” and this month the company released “Red 2,” which stars Bruce Willis and Helen Mirren, in China.
Following is a condensed version of the conversation:
Q: You recently said China’s film industry is entering a golden era, and you encouraged Americans to go work there. Were you thinking of actors and directors, was this individual career advice? Or are you speaking more on the studio level?
A: I mean more on the big six studio level – they would bring projects of serious scale and quality. Plenty of independent producers come to China with projects, but a lot of the China elements are really forced or they don’t show enough understanding of Chinese culture or the Chinese audience.
For instance, take really ancient Chinese stories – they think maybe we can get famous Chinese actresses like Fan Bingbing to act in it. They don’t understand the recent changes of the Chinese market. Stories like that are probably not going to appeal to Chinese too much nor appeal to Americans. It’s a lose-lose situation.
I’m excited about things like our relationship with Fox International Productions. The first project we’re doing with them is “Moscow Mission.” We have hired Hollywood writers to work on the script, and we of course will give it some Chinese touches in the end. We are really working together from the very beginning to create the script and everything else. It’s going to be a true cooperation, and hopefully people bringing their understanding of the different markets will make the story very successful.
Q. What’s it about?
A. It’s based on a true story in the 1990s. There’s a train between Moscow and Beijing, and many crimes happened on this train. Beijing sent six policemen to pretend to be passengers and catch the mafia people on the train. The officers are Chinese, so they’ll speak Chinese, but the bad guys are going to speak Russian and English. It will be shot in China and in Russia. We imagine about 50% will be Chinese language and 50% will be Russian and English. … The budget is about $30 million or so.
Q. Why have Hollywood screenwriters write this? Why not a Chinese screenwriter?
A. Because of our relationship with Fox. The film will have global distribution and we’ll have revenue sharing; hopefully it will come to the U.S. as well. That’s why we have Hollywood screenwriters writing for us --they know the Hollywood tradition of this kind of crime drama. And of course we will add in some Chinese details and the dialogue…. But overall the structure of the story, the flow of the story, we think Hollywood screenwriters have better control.
Q. “Iron Man 3” had extra scenes just for China. Will you take out some of the Chinese stuff for the global audience?
A. When Bona first started, I was bringing Hong Kong films to mainland China and working on co-productions between the mainland and Hong Kong. Because of certain needs to satisfy the Chinese censorship and appeal to mainland audiences, there would be more footage featuring mainland actors that would get cut out in the Hong Kong version and for global distribution. So it’s not a crazy thing to do.
But overall, these things the government really doesn’t support this way of doing things. It’s just not ideal. You’re not being totally responsible to the mainland audience of 1.3 billion people. It’s almost like tricking them, in a way. That’s why Bona’s stand is to have scriptwriters working together from the beginning, forming a true partnership early on. Hopefully we can minimize version difference as much as possible.
Q. You recently released a Chinese-language romantic action comedy, “My Lucky Star” directed by an American, Dennie Gordon. Why hire a non-Chinese-speaking American to do such a film?
A. When the project came to me, it was brought by the star and producer, Zhang Ziyi. She was friends with Dennie. By the time it came to Bona, the combo was pretty much already set – Dennie was already onboard, and the actors were already set, so I was more of an investor. I didn’t personally hire Dennie in the beginning. But I was very supportive of the project and the choice of the combo.
After reading the script, I thought it was not the best script ever, but I thought this particular working relationship, this model of having Hollywood and China working together, is something very much to encourage. I feel like we have to have done it at least once to really understand this new model and be able to qualify for more and to have more bargaining power when we talk to Hollywood studios going forward.
Working with Dennie was very pleasant. She doesn’t speak any Chinese yet you really didn’t need a translator on the set because she was doing things according to the Hollywood system and it was very clear when they were shooting what … this working system is very advanced and few Chinese companies are very good at it. We learned a lot through the relationship.
Q. What was the most difficult thing about the experience?
A. I think the biggest issue with it was the script. It’s kind of a made-up story. Some of the really popular films this year in China were based on bestselling novels that had a wide readership. The novels were popular for a reason. But for this particular project, because the script was made up … it in some ways lacked a solid foundation.
The hard part was really everyone’s timing was so fixed. Dennie only had a limited about of time, and so did Ziyi. We felt constrained in the script development stage. But I still thank them for doing such a great job. We made money on this film, it was profitable, a lot of fans really liked it, so overall it was a success for us.
Q. You have a horse in the Oscar race this year – Wong Kar Wai’s "The Grandmaster,” Hong Kong’s submission. How important is it to you that it wins?
A. “The Grandmaster” is a very special project for me and personally for Wong Kar Wai. It took five years to make, it was shot on film; he used Kodak and Fuji film. Apparently those companies don’t make film anymore, and he used up their stock. Depending on how he edited it, it could have ended up an entirely different film, just by the sheer amount of footage he had.
This is probably going to be the last masterpiece film made on film. The film is about a kung fu master, so it’s a very special project, it’s very Chinese and it’s a fascinating time in the history of China. It’s beautifully made. It had good box office in New York and L.A. -- the best for a Chinese film in years, so we think it has great potential to make the top 5 nominees.
The whole world has realized how much progress Chinese films have made in recent years…. Hopefully the Academy will pay more attention. If a Chinese company wins the best foreign language award, it will draw more attention to China and encourage the industry. We’ll get more support from the government and our foreign partners. It would be a really good thing.
Q. Your recent comments indicate that Bona’s main business now is Chinese films for Chinese audiences in China. But do you feel pressure from the government or other sources to make a “global” Chinese film?
A. On Chinese films, we have a very strong track record. And we make very good profits. We are increasingly interested in investing in English-language films because Chinese films are still pretty limited to the Chinese-speaking areas.… It’s still very difficult for Chinese films to be accepted in Europe and North America. So we hope to try this new area of investing in English-language films. Bona is a U.S.-listed company, we’re the only U.S.-listed Chinese film company and therefore we think we want to diversify our business and have more global expansion in this area.
Q. Does China need a film-rating system, and if so, why?
A. I think it will happen but at first there will be just be two categories – restricted and good for all. Right now there are some horror films and violent films, we really should have put a sign on them to warn the parents before they took the kids to see them. We should have more protection for our teenagers and be more responsible. I think people are increasingly realizing that there’s a need for this kind of warning. But the Chinese ratings are probably not going to be as specific as in the U.S at first. It will happen eventually.
Q. Would this allow you to make films with more violence or more sex that would be more appealing outside of China?
A. I don’t think that would really trigger all the film companies to start having more sex in their films. What would happen is that if a certain film has some shots that are more violent, they wouldn’t get cut out like they’re used to doing through the censorship process.
But the family audience is still a very important part of the Chinese audience and especially when you consider the box office capacity during New Year’s and summer vacation – those are definitely some of the best times to achieve good box office. So if film companies shift their focus to violence and sex, they will certainly have to lose that prime timing, and that’s going to be a huge loss for them, box office-wise.
Q. What movies have you liked lately? American movies?
A. I’m very busy, I have no time for movies! But I really liked the Chinese film “Finding Mr. Right.” [A “Sleepless in Seattle”-inspired tale about a Chinese woman who comes to the U.S. to give birth to the love child she’s conceived with her rich, married boyfriend.] It made such a contribution to the Chinese film industry.
People used to only focus on ancient stories, like kung fu and warlords. It used to be that the censorship was so strict; you couldn’t even talk about people living together before marriage. Now it’s kind of a milestone for China to be able to talk about these things that were involved in this movie…. Now there’s more room for creativity. You can talk about our daily lives, things that are slightly controversial.
It was very low budget, only 20 million yuan [about $3.3 million], but … it got to 500 million yuan box office, so it was a big commercial success.
It’s also so important because it really directly points out the conflicts in contemporary Chinese society. Such as the whole mistress culture or the fact that you’re really not allowed to have kids in Beijing without being married. These are all problems people face -- it’s really happening now in the moment.
Q. How many films do you expect to do for 2014, 2015?
A. Our recently announced 1-billion yuan film fund is for our productions for the next three years. We also have worked on a deal with a Chinese bank … to give us another 500 million yuan of leverage on top of that. So that 1.5 billion yuan is going to support our production for the next three years and all together there will be at least 45 films in total, about 15 per year.
Out of those 45, we imagine about 10 will have a budget of $20 million or higher. The majority will be around the $10-million level. Also we have smaller projects, $5 million and under. The projects with Fox will likely be the biggest. Keep in mind these are total budgets and we will seek co-investors.
Q. What about TV and Internet projects?
A. In the past 10 years there’s been great growth in the Chinese box office, but there’s also been crazy growth in the Internet. Now, more and more for movie theaters, people are focused on creating experience-based consumption. So because of the new technology, whether it’s Dolby Atmos or 3D – it’s becoming more experience-driven than about the content; it’s the whole experience of going to the fancy movie theater.
We think big screen is still the key, and we want to focus on that. That will be our primary focus going forward. Bona does film best and big screen is where we want to be.