Pirates part of the learning curve for Catchplay

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Wayne Chang, the 33-year-old general manager of Taipei-based Catchplay is a hurry to keep up with his film distribution company's speedy growth.

Though the company's first 2 1/2 years "followed a rough learning curve," its original idea remains simple and is what drives 18-hour work days, Chang says from his base in Taipei: "We wanted to replicate iTunes for the Asia market."

The idea for Catchplay -- which Chang founded in 2007 in California with Tim Chan -- came straight from benefactress Cher Wang, co-founder and chairwoman of the global smart phone giant HTC Corp. and one of the richest people in Taiwan and the world. Wang is Chan's aunt.

"Cher wanted to build a platform to marry HTC's strengths with those of VIA Technologies," the giant computer chip manufacturing company of which her husband is CEO. "So we decided to get into totally vertical distribution," Chang said.

In 2008, Catchplay's first full year of operations, the company bought Taiwan rights to 12 films for theatrical distribution and to 22 for DVD. In 2009, those numbers grew to 45 titles for theatrical release and 67 titles for DVD, Chang said.

Catchplay has also tried to emulate the successful U.S. online rental model Netflix by launching www.NT39.com.tw, whose name is taken from cost of a rental--39 Taiwan dollars, the rough equivalent of $1. Disc drop-offs happen at any 7-Eleven, a franchise with 4,800 outlets in Taiwan.

Catchplay also is working with Chunghwa Telecom for mobile distribution, the island's major television networks and various specialty bookshops to spread their acquisitions further.

"The old school players hate us," Chang says. "We're thinking about the whole chain in way they can't."

And Catchplay's acquisitions are not small, or exclusively Chinese language, but rather some of the biggest titles Hollywood studios and the major independents are putting out.

Their recent theatrical launch of "Kick Ass" (Catchplay does all its own marketing and promotion because, Chang says, "we don't trust anybody in the industry") went off at No. 1 at Taiwan's boxoffice and stayed there for two weeks, capturing 40% of the market.

"That's even more amazing considering the film's R rating," Chang said, reflecting Taiwan's conservative taste for the mainstream.

What did Catchplay do when it discovered last year that veteran competitors Blockbuster and Asia1 were selling unregistered copies of the Quentin Tarantino Grindhouse film series Catchplay bought fair and square from The Weinstein Co.?

Catchplay sued, getting considerable attention in the local press.

"What's important is that this behavior stops so real business can go forward. It has to stop, or people will start to ask what's the difference between Taiwan and China?" Chang said.

Undaunted, Catchplay plans to release 70 theatrical titles this year (1.5/week) and more than 200 titles on DVD. These titles include Mel Gibson's "Age of Darkness," Luc Besson's "From Paris With Love," and Sylvester Stallone's "Expendable."

In addition to distribution in Taiwan, where the population is barely 23 million strong, Catchplay, with its deep pockets, decided "to invest to learn the other parts of the business," Chang said. The company was a major backer of Natalie Portman's 2010 Sundance title "Hesher," in which she starred with Jason Gordon-Levitt and Rainn Wilson.

Do Catchplay's principals imagine the company will someday be sold to one of the studio giants from which it buys its content?

"No, Cher didn't set this company up to be sold. It's built to acquire," said Chang who's headed to Cannes for a week with colleague Al Huang to scour the Croisette for its 2011 lineup..

-- Jonathan Landreth
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