Chinese Studio Head Wang Zhonglei Discusses Censorship, Selling Company Stock and Brad Pitt's 'Fury' (Q&A)
Huayi Brothers' co-founder and president also talks about adding novice filmmakers to its roster of long-term collaborators.
SHANGHAI -- Originally, Huayi Brothers was set to launch its 2013-14 slate at Cannes -- but plans changed and the company decided to unveil its slate in a lavish press conference a day before the opening of the Shanghai International Film Festival's market. It’s a pretty diverse mix: two dark Jackie Chan films and left-of-field projects from non-mainland and young directors -- not to mention the earlier-announced presence of David Ayer’s Fury and a Brad Pitt-headlining World War II drama about U.S. soldiers in a tank trying to fight off their German counterparts.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter a day after the press conference, Huayi Brothers’ president Wang Zhonglei talks about the challenges posed by Fury, his vision of the company he co-founded with brother Wang Zhongjun in 1994 as an advertising shingle and why he decided to sell his shares of Huayi stock earlier this year, soon after his older brother said he wouldn’t be selling his shares in the near future.
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The Hollywood Reporter: Why did Huayi decide to try reaching out to international partners for Fury?
Wang Zhonglei: Huayi has always been very cautious when it comes to collaborations over English-language movies. The main reason is that on the mainland, the distribution business hasn’t been operating in a free and market-like manner because of policies shaped by the authorities. As we’ve always been a production company ourselves and we do have a lot of local productions in hand all the time, it’s always our prerogative to focus on this first.
But the business has grown bigger and the demand has also grown for different types of films. We might not be seen making that many moves in this arena over the past few years, but we’ve paved good foundations with sales companies -- and we’ve been looking at a lot of projects to work on, too.
There are many reasons why I find Fury to be fitting for Huayi to be involved in. First there’s the star, and then there’s also the topic [of soldiers under fire] which I think Chinese audiences are accustomed and receptive to.
THR: So this film will be brought in as an import rather than a co-production?
Wang: We will have to wait until we receive the screenplay. If we think it’s appropriate, we’ll try our best to apply for that status with the Film Bureau. But I think the chance of this becoming a co-production is pretty slim -- and our collaborators know pretty well, from the very beginning, about the situation. But I don't think the film will run into problems when it's to be distributed in China.
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THR: Will you be giving [Fury's co-producer] QED any advice about the obstacles faced by import films in China -- and maybe how to avoid them?
Wang: Of course we will. That’s why when we first read the story we asked them what kind of rating they were aiming for [in the U.S.]. It’s very important because we don’t have an age classification system here, so we need to understand what they want to make. Also, as it’s about war, we have to understand the kind of a stance they want to deliver with the film. It’s a very important discussion, this one -- if their views on war are different from [the official discourse on] the mainland, then there'll be some problems. And we have asked what kind of violence this film will portray. But the discussion went well, and there’s a big possibility that it’ll clear the censors without a problem.
A lot of the projects we’ve looked at in recent years have great potential from a business point of view -- and Huayi always wants to spot films that are universally viable. This is what investors will have to think about, too: Do they want to change their films to adjust to the demands of just China? Fury doesn’t pose this kind of trouble -- if it did, I wouldn’t have bothered. It’s too much work.
THR: There’s one other foreign film mentioned during the press conference on Sunday -- and that’s The Impossible, which has seen its release date pushed back quite a few times already. Does this reflect some of the problems one faces in distributing international films?
Wang: What’s special and important about distributing imported films in China is how to navigate the censorship system -- and one crucial thing is for the film producers to provide us with material to submit to the censors for approval. There’s a process involved, and you need time to do that: if you can’t get the sales people to supply you with the things you need before the film opens internationally, a day-to-date release, which we wanted for The Impossible, is nearly impossible.
In this case, we wanted originally to release it in October; when we missed that deadline we had to sit out December, January and February, as it’s usually the window for homegrown productions. By the time that’s over, and we can get our films looked at, we are looking at the packed schedule of May and June. So it’s always about these non-commercial reasons … in fact there’s been constant discussion between the parties involved [such as the Film Bureau and China Film Group, who officially brings films in and sets the release dates] and there’s always more than one single reason for these things to happen. It’s not like there’s a hidden hand interfering or something.
THR: What do you think of the explosive growth in the demand of homegrown productions in China over the past half of the year?
Wang: Personally, I think the Chinese market has expanded a lot and it’s mostly thanks to the expansion of demand in new cities, the third-tier cities. Their audiences boast of a huge demand for local films. We're also witnessing a shift in directors, actors and especially audiences now: This is about the time when the “post-1990-ers” [people born after 1990] became independent consumers for the first time, and they seem to be very curious about films by fresh-faced Chinese filmmakers. Films that sell massively seem to fall into this category.
THR: Do you agree with the suggestion that the Chinese film industry should consolidate their approach towards genre films, which the big hits in 2013 seemed to be in one way or the other?
Wang: I think it’s pretty difficult for Chinese cinema to establish itself through genres. The main thing is censorship -- with quite a few genres off the cards because of that, financiers are only left with a narrow choice of what to do. And then ever since the commercialization of Chinese films began about a decade ago [with Zhang Yimou’s martial arts thriller Hero] certain premises were continuously remade, which forced audiences away and narrowed the options down further for producers.
THR: Surveying Huayi’s 2014 slate, there are quite a few films made by non-mainland Chinese filmmakers and set outside the country, as well. Why do you find these stories appealing?
Wang: The three films you are referring to are all looking at history from a Chinese point of view, even if it’s unfolding in other territories. Doze Niu’s Playgrounds in the Army is about how a Taiwanese person looks at a particularly absurd period in the history of the island; [Jackie Chan’s] new film is about how a cop who rebels against the injustice he sees in Manhattan; [Hong Kong directors Mabel Cheung and Alex Law’s] A Tale of Three Cities falls into a genre that I personally like the most: films about how little people tackle their fate in times of grand wars. And Huayi is not a studio that'll see what’s selling and then jump on the bandwagon.
THR: There’s also a noted emphasis on new filmmakers in the announced slate this year, too.
Wang: New directors are risks, yes -- but then again when Huayi Brothers came into the film business [in the late 1990s] we were also working with young directors. Feng Xiaogang was one when he worked for us then! And afterwards we had Lu Chuan (A City of Life and Death) and Teng Huatao (Love Is Not Blind), each of whom made their first films with us, too.
This time around we have a director who was a post-1990er and is a screenwriter by training. He never really thought about directing, but we thought [we might] as well get the person who wrote it to bring it to the screen -- and we’ll help him out along the way.
THR: How about veterans like Gu Changwei, whose new project Literary Love in the Age of WeChat name-checks an online app -- ... something the director isn't exactly known for?
Wang: We don’t change directors -- that's all Gu’s choice. But my response is the same as yours: When I heard about it I called him and said, “Director, do you want to change yourself?” But he said no. It’s something he felt strongly about. I still think it’s a young person’s story.
We are still an industry that focuses on filmmakers and their fortes. We’re unlike Hollywood, where unlikely directors could get to do a superhero film, or when a James Bond film could be directed by someone most well-known for arthouse drama.
THR: Will this nurturing of future masters represent some sort of a blueprint for Huayi, something along the lines of a five- or ten-year plan?
Wang: What we want is for us to be the leader of the pack. For the past few days journalists here have been saying to me, "All these new films and filmmakers coming out, is it because Huayi isn't performing very well this year?" I thought about it for a bit, and said, "I’ve still made 1.7 billion yuan in 2013 by releasing three films -- which means, yes, we’re still in that pole position. So we have to be clear about what we want to be -- and I don’t look at box-office returns from just one film, but whether we could have a sustained push of a series of films that will open audiences’ eyes.
THR: Given your enthusiasm in looking at the future, it’s strange to come to terms with your recent sales of Huayi stocks. Is it because you need to cash for another venture?
Wang: The reason is completely personal. After all, it’s also an investment. This company -- and maybe I have it wrong, but people in Hong Kong or around the world, when their companies go public, should they not be allowed to sell their shares? I founded this company in 1994 and this is the first time, in 19 years, that I plucked one of these flowers I grew -- and I am putting it on myself rather than on someone or something else … I discussed this with Zhongjun and members of the board, and they are very supportive.