DMG invests in five China films
Media company bringing 'Knowing' to China in the fallBEIJING -- DMG, the Beijing-based media company that bought "Knowing" from Summit to distribute in China in the fall, will -- in its first year in features -- invest in four other films, including the China Film Group's star-studded film celebrating 60 years of Communist rule.
Led by CEO Dan Mintz, DMG has risen to become one of the top five advertising firms by revenue in China over the past 16 years. The firm's ads are omnipresent in the capital. It recently brought gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps back to China for the first time since the Beijing Olympics to do a widely aired TV spot for Japanese carmaker Mazda.
But now, Mintz is excited about making movies -- something he calls a return to his roots despite starting out as a commercials cameraman in his hometown, New York City, and having limited feature film credits to his name.
To get noticed on China's growing movie map, Mintz and his two local partners, DMG chairman Peter Xiao and company vp and former star gymnast Wu Bing -- are putting the money they've made with clients such as Volkswagen, China Mobile and the NBA, together with the persistence they've long used to work China's tightly controlled media bureaucracy.
Working in advertising and events production since 1993, the timing of DMG's move into movies is no coincidence. China's boxoffice, after five years of growth averaging 25%, reached $635 million in 2008.
Because of rising average Chinese incomes, a boom in urban multiplex building and early signs of recession recovery, ticket sales are expected to rise again this year.
And the market could soon open further. Just last week, the World Trade Organization ruled that China might soon have to end state-control of film imports, which could hurt DMG's partner, the state-run heavyweight China Film Group as more distributors get into the game.
But the growing outfit hopes to be in the middle of the bridge between Hollywood and China, starting with its investment in films such as "Knowing" and "The Great Cause of the Country's Founding," the $6 million epic from CFG about Mao Zedong founding the People's Republic in 1949.
Starring Jackie Chan, Zhang Ziyi, Jet Li, John Woo, Feng Xiaogang and pretty much every other Chinese film personality working today -- and, in this case, working basically for free -- "Jian Guo Da Ye" (the title in Chinese) will be released Sept. 17, ahead of the Oct. 1 National Day holiday.
DMG Entertainment is directed in Los Angeles by former WMA agent Chris Fenton and in Beijing by recent USC film and business school graduate Donny Liang.
Mintz said DMG is investing in the $3 million romantic comedy "Du Lala," by actress-director-blogger Xu Jinglei, based on a recent best-selling novel about a modern Chinese office lady climbing the corporate ladder.
Mintz said he hopes the CFG/DMG production, now shooting in Beijing with Xu in the lead alongside Hong Kong actress Karen Mok and Taiwan singer Stanley Huang, will be the first by a female director to earn 100 million yuan at China's boxoffice.
Xu's sophomore effort as a director, "Letter From an Unknown Woman" won her the best director award at the 2004 San Sebastian International Film Festival.
Also with CFG, DMG has invested in the road movie "No Man's Land," the next project from "Crazy Stone" director Ning Hao, now in postproduction. "Crazy Stone" was a low-budget boxoffice comedy that earned about $3 million in China in 2006, launching the director's career.
Mintz said that CFG partnered with DMG because its advertising clients' money can mean product placement revenue. He also touted an understanding of both shortform advertising storytelling and the longform sensibility needed to make movies. Finally, he said, CFG liked DMG because of its business connections, or, in Chinese, its "guanxi."
DMG's guanxi -- drawing on relationships built by Xiao, the son of a military figure of indeterminate rank -- has been key to DMG's ability to get things done, Mintz said.
Mintz won't say how much he and his DMG partners earn in revenue every year. Some recent reports say more than $100 million annually.
Sitting in his 25th floor corner office in Beijing's Central Business District, Mintz doesn't shy away from an occasional boast -- about the company's pull, its strategy and his own accomplishments.
"There are a lot of people who talk a lot about how to do business in China, but I actually got 'Knowing' in," said Mintz, referring to the Nicolas Cage film.
Although most, if not all of China's annual 20 film import licenses for 2009 have already been handed out by CFG, Mintz claims DMG and CFG will bring "Knowing" to more than 1,000 screens nationwide in late October.
"Knowing" may be the first biggish indie in recent memory to make it into China's tightly controlled movie market -- one that typically favors Hollywood studio tentpoles. Until it actually hits screens here, industry observers familiar with often opaque operations at the Film Bureau, say DMG's claim means little.
Mintz said a fifth CFG/DMG film, yet to be announced, is likely to be another U.S. indie import sometime early in 2010.