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Cannes: Seven Stars Media Chairman & CEO Bruno Wu on Changes Needed in Chinese Film (Q&A)

Bruno Wu - P 2012
Da Xiong
Bruno Wu

China's billionaire mogul, who is backing three films in Cannes' official selection, explains what is — and isn’t — working in the world’s soon-to-be No. 1 box-office market.

Bruno Wu is descending on Cannes as the backer of three films in the festival’s official selection: He is executive producer of James Gray’s The Immigrant, and a financier of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives and Guillaume Canet’s Blood Ties. That trifecta marks his transformation from a Chinese media mogul to a major player in the international film industry.

Born in China and educated in the U.S., Wu has a business management degree from Culver-Stockton College in Missouri and a masters in international affairs from Washington University, St. Louis. Married to Yang Lan, a broadcast journalist and media entrepreneur in her own right, and father to two children, he heads the massive conglomerate Seven Stars Media, but is now focusing his attention more on his film endeavors through its subsidiary Seven Stars Entertainment. He founded the Harvest Seven Stars Media Private Equity Group, an $800 million dollar equity financing fund, in 2012 to back English-language films. He partnered with filmmaker Justin Lin to form Perfect Storm Entertainment to produce a slate of films. And he has formed a joint partnership with Marvel founder Avi Lerner to develop Chinese superhero movies.

Before setting off for Cannes, Wu, 46, spoke with THR from his Beijing office about his desire to make “pedigree films,” the rise of Chinese box office and the need for his compatriots to make English-language movies to break through globally.

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The Hollywood Reporter: You’ve got a pretty varied slate of films coming up. What’s the plan?

Bruno Wu: After Justin Lin’s sixth Fast & Furious film is released this month, we are going to start producing our movies. We have 11 under development. We also have three or four with Avi Lerner, with one, Rise of the Terracotta Warriors, ready to go into the first phase of animation. I also have a deal with one more very successful producer, which I hope we can announce in Cannes. So that’s the commercial and action movies field.

In what I call the pedigree field there are two kinds of films I will do: There are projects I develop, like [the Erin Cressida Wilson-penned] Mission Boys or [the Gong Li-starring] The Last Empress. On the latter, unfortunately, we lost our producer Jake Eberts, who passed away last year, but we put our project back on track and will dedicate the movie to him.
Then there are the movies I did not develop but I participated when the producers and financiers approached me. And we really got lucky — two got into the Cannes competition and one got an out-of-competition berth. In the last 18 months, over 4,000 projects have come to us. We have a professional team to screen them and recommend, but at the end of the day it’s myself who makes the final call.

THR: You owned one of Hong Kong’s two main TV stations, chaired Sina for a year and have touched on media outlets in print and online. It was only in the past two years that you became involved in film. Why now?

Wu: Our group is becoming quite diversified. We pretty much covered everything else except for sports and film so that’s why it became our focal point of investment. Secondly I see the Chinese box office rising like a rocket and I see this as counter-cyclical — even if the economic growth goes slower, we still see our entertainment expenditure going up. By 2020, the Chinese box office is likely to catch up with North America. That’s why I started off with investing in films, first of all with pedigree films, as I still have dreams of being a filmmaker.  

With the China markets, it’s a bit difficult, but with globally distributed films there’s a high chance of them being commercially successful. Our next step this year will be to start investing in local Chinese films.

Our company is traditionally one of the strongest online portals, but social media has been a new challenge to us. However, we managed to partner with various entities and we have aggregated an excess of 240 million grassroots registered active users on a daily basis over WeChat and Weibo [social-media] platforms. Certainly with my wife and her friends — my wife has got 55 million followers — we have access to 70 or 80 million. We want to go deeper with this social-media method.

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THR: Why did you form a joint venture with Britain’s Pinewood Shepperton?

Wu: First of all, Pinewood’s an iconic name, one of the largest independent film production facilities in the world. But besides hardware itself, Pinewood has tremendous know-how, training craftsmen and creative people. In order to make movies, you need an ecosystem. You need world-class production management and talent, hence the Pinewood joint venture becomes timely.

THR: How does that fit with Chinawood Global Services Base, the $12.7 billion project you and the Chinese government launched last April?

Wu: Unfortunately, we set up Chinawood in the Binhai district in the Tianjin area, and the entire Binhai district as a financial center slowed down its  development. Therefore, while we kept the Chinawood operation in Tianjin we are also looking at building another platform in Shanghai. At the end, Chinawood will probably end up including two financial platforms in the two special zones in China. Pinewood will be about production, but Chinawood is about a strong financial platform.

THR: What are the major challenges the Chinese film industry faces?

Wu: In the past three or four months, Chinese films have pretty much dominated the Chinese box office, which is pretty amazing. However, Chinese films still have some barriers to overcome before becoming a true world force in terms of telling a good and globally accepted story. All this is still far from being a reality.

Secondly I think the Chinese film industry still lacks infrastructure, the financing or production management of talent, even training craftsmen. Besides that, language is still a major barrier. English is still the global universal language — for the Chinese moviemakers to break out should be similar to something I’m doing, which is to participate with global talents and make English movies.