China bank funds local hero film, a first

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PUSAN -- For the first time, a mainland Chinese bank has financed a film by local-hero director Feng Xiaogang, Huayi Brothers Film Investment Co. said Sunday at the 11th annual film festival ongoing here.

After four months of tough negotiations, China Merchants Bank invested half of the $10 million budgeted to make "The Assembly," a war story now shooting in northeast China, Wang Zhonglei, Huayi's president, said.

Though commonplace in the West, bank finance for films in mainland China is rare. Many banks already laden with bad debt are scared off by the film industry bugbear of rampant intellectual property theft. In May, Standard Chartered Bank of Hong Kong was breaking new ground when it put up an undisclosed amount to fund internationally acclaimed director Zhang Yimou's "Curse of the Golden Flower" (HR 5/16), now China's choice to go to the Oscars next year (HR 9/30).

"The Assembly" got bank finance, Wang said, because even though bank CEO Ma Weihua was new to the film world, many layers of assurance were written into Huayi's contract with China Merchants, the country's strongest credit card and Internet banking player.

It didn't hurt that Ma already knew Huayi Brothers Media Group CEO Wang Zhongjun (Zhonglei's older sibling) and Huayi board member Jack Ma, CEO of e-commerce giant Alibaba.com, Yahoo's partner in China (HR 11/9).

"The three are friends and they got to talking about the topic of film financing," Wang said.

In order to get the investment, Huayi first had to raise $5 million on its own and deposit it with Shanghai-listed China Merchants.

"We are allowed to give the bank the payment schedule for shooting our film, but we gave up control of our money," Wang said. "The bank became our accountant."

Wang said Huayi held a news conference for Chinese media when "The Assembly" began shooting two weeks ago but downplayed China Merchants involvement because CEO Ma did not want to draw undue attention to his new venture.

"Chinese entertainment reporters didn't understand the importance of the deal," Wang said. "Many assumed that our money has been coming from the banks all along."

Adapted from a short story about a Chinese soldier who seeks recognition for comrades fallen during the Chinese civil war between the communists the nationalists, "The Assembly" is unusual for another reason, too: 40 members of its crew are the South Korean filmmakers who made the 2004 war epic "Taegukgi," on loan at below market cost from MK Pictures, Wang said.

To bring the best talent to the film, Huayi imported the team of movie makeup artists, explosives masters, and a B-unit director of photography whose specialty is battles. Wang expects they will help train select members of the 200-strong Chinese cast. "They complement our local crew and we learn a lot in the process," Wang said.

Wang said he hoped that talks with MK ongoing at the bustling market will convince the South Korean entertainment powerhouse to join China Merchants Bank as a producer on "The Assembly." Currently there is no guarantee that MK will win the distribution rights to the finished film but, Wang said, "We want to work with MK from the start to the finish."

Director Feng's latest film, the ancient Chinese drama "The Banquet," starring Zhang Ziyi, recently was selected by Hong Kong to represent it to the 2007 Oscars selection committee (HR 9/30).
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