Berlin: iQiyi Pictures Exec Li Yansong on Why the Chinese Film Sector Needs to Evolve (Q&A)

The young president of China’s latest filmmaking (and film buying) powerhouse discusses making his first trip to Berlin.

Li Yansong, the 36-year-old president of iQiyi Motion Pictures, which is owned by the Chinese search giant Baidu (alongside Alibaba and Tencent, one of China’s biggest media companies), was born in the Year of the Horse and believes that 2014 was a good year for him because it was a Horse Year.

Based in Beijing, Li is an avid soccer fan who played in the Beijing soccer league, and is also something of a Hollywood movie buff. He says he was thrilled to meet his two favorite actors — Robert De Niro and Al Pacino — during a visit to the U.S. iQiyi has been in the business only since July, but already has announced plans to make seven local films and one Hollywood-style film over the next year, and buy distribution rights to more than 1,000 U.S. movie titles. More than 1 million users took part in iQiyi’s crowd-funding program last year for The Golden Era from Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui, raising nearly $3 million in three minutes.

The married Li spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the company’s strategy in Berlin, its relationship with Hollywood fare and the challenges facing the world’s second-biggest film market.

What does Berlin mean to you?

This is my first time at the Berlin International Film Festival. For me, like others born in China in the 1970s, Berlin is associated in our minds with the Berlin Wall and the history of East and West Germany. That period of history is what immediately springs to mind when we think of Berlin, and other than that our knowledge is limited. My impression of the city and the festival is currently based on my imagination, so I am looking forward to finding out more.

What do you personally look for in a movie when deciding what iQiyi will go for?

There are basically some major principles a company needs to follow when making a decision about a film: It either needs to touch on a hot-button issue and generate massive online discussion or win an award such as Black Coal, Thin Ice [which won the Berlin Golden Bear last year]. Otherwise, we want to get in at the ground level to invest in a big project. Blockbusters like this are low risk and very influential. Online video is now second only to traditional theaters as a market for movies, and movies stay online for longer. Gone With the Bullets has long-term box-office potential online because of the massive discussion it generated and iQiyi’s promotional support.

You have some big plans — one Hollywood and seven domestic movies this year. How is that going?

Our 7+1 plan is already finished. We produced seven movies domestically, one of which we made in cooperation with Emperor Group, called To the Fore, and Monkey Beats the White Skeleton Demon. The other four domestically produced films are all finished, and when the time is right we will release them to the public. Our Hollywood-level cooperative project is also done. Watch this space for more news on that in the coming weeks. Gone with the Bullets was the first in our string of co-productions and is one of the eight titles. It’s also in the festival’s competition program..

How do you expect cooperation with Hollywood to increase? And what about other countries, such as European countries and Korea?

iQiyi has cooperated with Hollywood for the last three years. Our film warehouse has purchased a large amount of content, and we are in talks with many different companies about collaborative projects. We believe that there will be a great deal of cooperation with Hollywood in the future. Both Hollywood and Europe know that the Chinese market is big and are willing to actively collaborate. In the future, iQiyi will buy a large amount of copyrighted content while also considering in-depth cooperative projects on a case-by-case basis. Paid content is a part of iQiyi’s business. Right now 95 percent of paid content is movies, but in the future there will be concerts and variety TV shows. We have cooperated with studios from China, Hollywood, India, Europe and North America. The business of paid content is developing very fast. iQiyi is the largest paid content platform in China, both in terms of user numbers and revenue.

What are the big issues facing content in China right now?

China is the second-largest movie market in the world and is expected to be the first in 2017, so the domestic market has a huge variety of content. Some movies, such as Beijing No. 81 and the Breakup Guru were made on very small budgets but became huge hits because the story hooked audiences. I think there will be more interesting content in the market in 2015. The Chinese movie industry is getting better at storytelling and domestic movies are becoming increasingly popular. Meanwhile overseas studios have seen the huge potential of the Chinese market. A lot of foreign content is released in China at the same time as in studios’ home markets, and more good content, including Hollywood series, will be released in China this year.

What do you make of the constant debate about co-productions between overseas and Chinese companies? Any signs of this taking place?

The key is that we find common ground and find a solution which suits both sides, and ultimately make the best movie..

How is the Chinese market holding up against global competition?

There will be a lot of excellent Hollywood titles coming to China. To respond, the Chinese movie industry has to produce the best content to face the international challenge.

 

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