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On the eve of the Chinese fantasy film Monster Hunt‘s release in 2015, the film’s director, Raman Hui, was terrified. After more than 20 years in Hollywood — much of it spent working for DreamWorks Animation as a senior animator and director (he co-helmed Shrek the Third) — Hui had returned to his hometown of Hong Kong to make his live-action directorial debut for legendary local producer Bill Kong and his Edko Films.
“Bill took this big risk to make my first live-action film, and I was so scared he wouldn’t get his money back,” Hui says.
Those worries, however, turned out to be misplaced: Monster Hunt opened to $27.5 million on a Thursday, setting a single-day record on the way to ultimately grossing $382 million, another all-time high at the time for the burgeoning China market. The next morning, Hui received a congratulatory phone call from Jeffrey Katzenberg, his former boss at DreamWorks Animation.
“He told me everyone there was proud of me and that I should keep doing what I’m doing — but that I would always have a home at DreamWorks,” Hui says. “It meant a lot to me.”
Hui and Kong have heeded that advice and continue on the path that opened up for them following Monster Hunt’s smashing success. The partners now are envisioning a four-film series, with a potential animated spinoff, hoping to make Monster Hunt China’s first full-fledged franchise, with tentpole films feeding a full suite of sub-licensing agreements, merchandising deals and theme park attractions.
They would seem to be the ideal duo to achieve this landmark first for China. Kong has produced some of Hong Kong and China’s most globally successful and critically acclaimed films, from Ang Lee’s Oscar- winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Zhang Yimou’s Hero to the Walt Disney Co.’s forthcoming live-action Mulan. Hui is that rare filmmaker who has worked at the peak of the U.S. and Chinese industries — and understands the demands of both.
Kong and Hui, now toiling on Monster Hunt 2 with an eye toward a Feb. 18 release, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter at Edko’s Hong Kong offices about coping with big expectations, the surprising upsides of piracy and the value of creative partnerships that are built for the long term.
Before you guys came together for the first Monster Hunt, Raman had never done a live-action film and Bill had never done a movie that relied so heavily on CG. Was there a steep learning curve?
HUI I’ve known Bill for almost 20 years; we met because he used to distribute movies for DreamWorks Animation in China. For years I was hoping I would come back to Asia to make something. So at some point I went to Bill and said, “Would you be interested in making an animated movie together for Hong Kong or China?” He said, “Nope, no way — you’ve got a good thing going in Hollywood, keep doing what you’re doing.” But a few years later, he suggested that maybe we could do a live-action project. I had never done anything in live action, so I was like, “You really think I can do that?” He just looked at me and said, “You don’t look so dumb; I think you can handle it.” So we went for it, but I really had no idea how to deal with actors.
How did that go?
HUI During one of our first meetings, our first AD asked me how long it would take me to shoot this one scene. In animation, that scene would probably take about three months to finish, so I thought that maybe two weeks seemed safe. He was shocked. Now I know that it’s the kind of scene you can get done in one day. That’s how unfamiliar I was with live-action filmmaking. I would also talk to the actors the way I would talk to animators, saying things like, “Walk in a few beats slower, tilt your head slightly this way, and make your smile a little bit broader.” I almost wanted to say, “Do what you’re doing, but just two frames longer.” It was way too specific and visual.
Bill, how was the process on the second film different for you?
KONG Raman proved that he had tremendous talent, doing what he did at DreamWorks. So the question for me the first time was, “How can I help him get comfortable making a hybrid live-action/ CGI movie?” The most difficult thing turned out to be finding the right people in China who could do the level of effects we needed at the price we could afford. (Edko ended up using Beijing-based startup Base FX, which has grown with the franchise.) As for what was different this time, everything is bigger. There are more than double the number of visual effects shots, more monsters, and much more difficult effects and much bigger sets. It’s very ambitious for the Chinese industry.
HUI Bill kept saying more, more, put in more.
KONG It’s a strange relationship for a producer and a director. Raman is a very responsible and conservative person, whereas I’m happy to take more of a risk. The only other director I’ve met who thinks like him is Zhang Yimou. They both want to make sure everyone makes their money back — because if you burn all of your bosses, no one will finance your next movie.
I’ve heard that one of the drawbacks to Monster Hunt’s surprising success was that you didn’t have licensing deals in place and missed out on a lot of potential ancillary revenue.
KONG Yes, that’s true. But in some ways, I think our approach, looking back, was smarter. When we released Monster Hunt, we wished we could do licensing but we had no time and didn’t even register all of the IP. But I did think about it, at the time, wondering how much are we losing out on. From my conversations with the U.S. studios about their licensing arrangements in China, I would estimate that we lost out on a few million dollars in potential merchandising rights sales. But I think we actually got tens of millions more in box office thanks to the pirates’ free advertising. Because all of those pirates making illegal Monster Hunt goods were promoting the movie for us. There were hundreds and hundreds of Wuba products (Wuba is the turnip-shaped baby monster hero of Monster Hunt). Raman hated this because many of them were very badly designed, but they helped us market the movie. Who knows how much all of those products boosted us at the box office — they were everywhere in mainland China. Realistically, at that time, no legitimate licensing partner would have given us that level of saturation. Not even close.
How are you going about this for Monster Hunt 2?
KONG This time we are doing it properly. We have many licensing partners; we’re working with Alibaba on merchandising; we have a deal with the biggest shopping mall in China; and we’ve partnered with Chimelong, China’s largest domestic theme park company, which is developing Monster Hunt theme lands. We’re also working very closely with Lionsgate, which is bringing out the film day and date in the U.S. Lionsgate also is discussing a Monster Hunt attraction in the Middle East.
HUI Really? I didn’t even know that.
KONG You know Lionsgate, those guys can sell anything. [Laughs.]
Was the international market more in your mind when you were making the sequel?
HUI The way we tell the story is very universal; that’s how I was trained at DreamWorks. Kung Fu Panda is a Chinese-themed film that can play anywhere in the world. My filmmaking is similar; the only difference is that this film is live action, with Chinese actors speaking Chinese.
KONG We never set out as filmmakers to do something international or local. I never pressure or ask him to try to make something more international. We make the film that we feel in our hearts. Authenticity and being genuine is more important than anything with storytelling. We never try to force elements into it to make it more accessible overseas. We stick to the story and the characters, and that guides us.
I’ve heard producers suggest that it might be possible to do dual-language versions movies like Monster Hunt, since many of the actors are from Hong Kong and bilingual — just run two takes, one in Chinese, one in English. Would you ever consider that?
HUI We actually had someone approach us from the U.S. to do a Hollywood version — basically remake the whole movie with American actors. I can easily see how you could make the story more Hollywood. But we didn’t want to spend our time on that yet. Making a sequel that’s true to the direction of the first film was exciting enough for now.
The first Monster Hunt was an unexpected success. This time, there are huge expectations. How are you coping with that?
HUI The nice thing about filmmaking is it’s such an involving process. Once you start working on the film, you don’t really have time to think about anything else. You’re leading a big team and you’re trying to do your best for all of the people who are counting on you.
KONG My expectation isn’t that we break the first one’s box-office record. If we don’t, that’s fine. The important thing is we make a better movie than the first one. Because that’s how franchises survive. Even if it makes less, if it’s a better film, we will keep the audience’s trust and they will be excited to see the third one. We’re looking at this from the perspective of a franchise.
How large will the franchise ultimately be, ideally?
HUI We have the story planned out through a fourth film. After four, Bill says we have to see what the market is like. We are discussing doing an animated version after the fourth one, to change things up. I would love to do an animated version.
So the first time you asked Bill to make an animated movie he refused. It sounds as if you’ve won him over.
KONG Now Raman can do anything he likes.
HUI The only thing Bill pushes me about is to get it done fast.
KONG The first one took seven years for us to make; the second one took three. I hope the next one takes one and a half. Two to three years is the limit for timing between franchise releases, I think. More than three years, and memories start to fade. Movies come to VOD much faster in China than in the west. The window is much shorter, the audience is very young, and tastes are changing constantly. So I pushed Raman hard to get this one done faster, so that we could keep the gap short and open in time for Chinese New Year — that’s a very special date for China, especially for a family-friendly film.
Many in China have told me that one of the biggest factors holding the industry back is a dearth of experienced producers, people who really know how to package and shepherd projects.
KONG There are some, but of course we could always use a lot more. My comment on that would be that there more money people involved in the Chinese industry right now and not enough producers. This is good, of course — what movie industry doesn’t need money? — but the problem is that these people are getting involved in the industry to make a quick buck. I wish they would look at their investments longer term — that they are investing in cultivating a relationship with filmmakers. For most young Chinese directors, if they don’t have a big hit with their first film, these money people won’t finance them ever again. I worked with Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou — both of their first films lost money. Even Akira Kurosawa’s first film lost money. If these guys were getting their start in China today, they would never get to make a second film, and they would die unhappily. You need to take a longer view — look at this industry as a 10- to 20-year investment. Raman could have failed the first time, and I would have stuck with him and made his next film, because I believe in his talent. Fortunately for both of us, we didn’t have to worry about that. But I would have stood by him.
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