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Peter Luo, CEO of Starlight Media, came to industry attention in Hollywood at a somewhat awkward moment for an ambitious Chinese film financier.
Starlight began making waves in the business in mid-2017, when a slew of development and co-financing deals it had done with prominent Hollywood directors came to light. The company splashed out on agreements with James Wan, Roland Emmerich, Sam Raimi, Jon M. Chu and F. Gary Gray. But at the same time, by 2017, the past tsunami of Chinese cash that had crashed into Hollywood was beginning a fast retreat. Dalian Wanda Group’s buying spree in Hollywood was reversing into a fire sale, and Donald Tang, the only other Chinese dealmaker making moves at the time, would see his would-be mini-studio Global Road go bankrupt in under a year.
Starlight’s financing also came from somewhat opaque sources in China. The company listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange after a reverse takeover of a small firm involved in casino junkets and chemical manufacturing. And this was at a time when China’s government was in the midst of cracking down on companies that splashed out on overseas trophy sectors that were outside their core areas of competency.
So, fairly or not, many both in the Beijing film industry and Hollywood were highly skeptical of Starlight’s director-centered dealmaking. But over the intervening years, many of those deals have borne — and continue to bear — fruit.
Starlight achieved its first big win with a sizable investment in Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians (the film earned $238 million from a $30 million budget), followed by a miss with an investment in Emmerich’s Midway ($126 million earned, but a $100 million budget). The company’s upcoming slate includes stakes in Malignant, James Wan’s much-anticipated return to the horror genre, and Iris K. Shim’s Korea-American horror Umma, produced by Raimi. This spring, Starlight also will release Wuhan Wuhan, a much-buzzed-about documentary exploring the early phases of China’s frontline battle against the coronavirus.
Last August, Starlight expanded its filmmaker partnerships to the emerging-talent end of the spectrum, launching a $50 million talent development fund it calls the “Stars Collective.” The scheme seeks to help young filmmakers from around the world — with an emphasis on women and BIPOC directors — develop their stories into potential projects for Starlight to produce. An initial selection of 11 filmmakers unveiled last year includes eight female directors and a diverse mix of nationalities, ethnicities, races and personal and professional backgrounds. The company has recruited veteran Hollywood producers and talent — including Raimi, Gianni Nunnari, Patrick Wachsberger, Donna Gigliotti and Paula Wagner, among others — to help mentor the recipients and shepherd their projects towards the screen.
Luo began his career as an aspiring filmmaker, getting a degree in directing from the prestigious Beijing Film Academy — a fact that undoubtedly helped inform his director-first approach to film investing. Prior to moving to the U.S. to head up Starlight, he spent nearly two decades working within the Chinese industry as a director and producer, shooting TV commercials, music videos and television dramas.
The Hollywood Reporter recently connected with Luo by phone to discuss Starlight’s various upcoming projects and the vision behind his pathfinding moves in the industry.
Starlight first caught the industry’s attention by signing a bunch of first-look development deals with in-demand Hollywood filmmakers. It appeared to me that you might be importing a film business approach that’s popular in China to Hollywood. Because as you know as well as anyone, relationships with top directors are everything in China, because the Chinese industry is much more director driven than producer driven. So you see a lot of major studios build their entire company around exclusive relationships with the most proven director talent. So, early on, it seemed to me that Starlight was kind of importing that model to Hollywood, and that it would be interesting to see how it played out. So, it’s been a few years now. What’s your assessment of how this approach has worked or hasn’t worked for you in the U.S. industry?
It’s true that the director is very much at the center of our industry in China. To us, the talent, especially the director is always the core and the fundamental force in the film industry. Of course, producers are another important force. But Starlight will continue to make talent-centered deals, because we think that the directors are the core of cinema.
But we also think that in order for this industry to further grow in these changing times, we need new voices. That’s why we launched our new program, Stars Collective, in the hope that we can pair our established directors with their expertise, experience and influence in the industry, with our young directors — so that we can create more innovative content.
Of course, there’s no perfect model; so we’ll continue to improve our approach so that it fits the trends of the time and the current direction in the way storytelling is being done. But we really think that directors have always been at the center of every revolution, whether in terms of storytelling, aesthetics or the use of new technology. So we are very comfortable sticking with our focus on director talent.
Your Stars Collective fund sounds like it could have a very positive impact on the careers of young filmmakers. But you’re also a publicly traded company. How are you balancing your ambitions for the program with the need to deliver value for your shareholders — or do you see those two things as aligned?
Of course, on the one hand, we want to have a big social influence. On the other hand, we also want to make sure that we are picking great independent films that can be produced and marketed. We are trying to encourage our directors to strike a balance between artistic and commercial values, although we understand sometimes it’s really hard. For example, we’re having conversations with some young directors in Europe and we are encouraging those young directors to work outside of their comfort zones and lean on genre more than they have before to meet the interests of the audience.
With the rise of the streamers, we think it’s clearer than ever that the industry needs fresh thinking and new voices telling stories from perspectives we haven’t seen over and over before. That’s why we launched this program to assist and empower diverse storytellers — we think the model will fit the wave of the times very well.
How far along are most of the projects and the directors that you’re backing with the fund?
Most of the projects under our Stars Collective program have scripts, but they’re still in the development stage. This is a long-term commitment. We really believe in development. Because we want to set a high bar for diversity and inclusion, the projects have a very diverse range of subjects. I would say 70 percent of the projects already have scripts, and 30 percent have treatments or ideas that really hooked us but need support in order to enter into development.
I’m really proud of the Stars Collective. In a relatively short period of time, we have been able to find emerging 74 directors and writers to work with from all around the world. They’re coming from different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures. It’s so encouraging to see so many young talents with creative ideas. Every time, whenever I think of Stars Collective, it excites me. It makes me feel young again. I think this is a campaign and initiative I can work for for the rest of my life.
In what areas do you feel that Starlight has made the most progress toward your ambitions, and where would you say you have stumbled?
I’m most proud of the great projects we have been developing with our amazing A-list directors. With our directors and producers, we have developed nearly 80 IP — films that will be rolled out for years to come. Among these IPs, we have been building our own universe and franchise. For example, we have been building an action film universe in collaboration with Tony Jaa and Donnie Yen. We have an untitled Tony Jaa assassin project and Golden Empire with Donnie Yen.
We also have been building our own horror-thriller universe in collaboration with James Wan and Sam Raimi. We want to make our films more targeted, and I think we’ve made good progress on that. We also have Alan Taylor’s Gold Mountain, a Chinese immigrant drama set during the San Francisco Gold Rush. Alan is polishing the script and it’s amazing. We have a project called Empress of China from Robert Zemeckis. It’s about the one and only empress in the history of China. Bob also put enormous time and effort into that.
For James Wan’s Malignant, you have the China distribution rights for that film, right? Is a horror thriller from James Wan something you’re confident you can get released in China? Traditionally, the censors have not allowed horror on Chinese screens much.
Yes, we do have the release rights for Malignant in China. We believe we have the relationships and understanding in China to make it happen. Although it’s true that historically few horror films have been released in China, we are still confident about this one because the core idea and values of this film are very positive.
Malignant is also one of the Warner Brothers movies that WarnerMedia decided to release simultaneously in cinemas and over its own streaming platform, HBO Max. How did you feel about that decision and were you compensated?
The shrinking theatrical window has been a challenge for some time. The pandemic just sped up that change and challenge. Of course, it’s hard to predict whether it’s a change for good or a change for bad, but we think that day and date release plans will be one of new realities for some films. We think the market will tell whether this is a good trend or a bad trend, but we believe that as long as our film’s quality is high, everything else will work itself out. If we have the best films and the best content, we are confident it will not affect us in a negative way.
The China-Hollywood relationship has obviously gone through some wild ups and downs during the past five years that Starlight has been working in this space. You made your big splash in Hollywood right at the tail end of the China capital boom in Hollywood. Beijing was cracking down on investment into non-Chinese film companies just as you were coming to the fore, out of offices in Beverly Hills. How did those forces affect your ability to operate?
Yes, during the five years as a company, we have seen some ups and downs, and twists and turns — for ourselves, for the industry and also for China-Hollywood relations. But no matter what happens around us, we have always stuck to our core principle: to find ways to work with the best talent to create the best content. We always keep focused on that principle, and I think it has guided us well.
U.S.-China relations have only deteriorated further in recent years. There are growing concerns over whether Hollywood will be able to maintain access to China’s theatrical market in this climate, and whether the trend towards greater industry interdependence will continue to reverse. What’s your take?
I feel very positive about future Chinese-U.S. relations and the exchange between our two industries, because the Chinese and North American markets take up almost 60 percent of the global box office. With closed doors, none of us will benefit from the potential we can unleash through engagement and collaboration. Of course, we may experience some intermittent setbacks, but we think the long-term momentum is still going forward. With the new leadership [in Washington], I feel very positive about our future of cooperation together.
In the wake of the pandemic, obviously, the North American box office has been very badly hurt, but China has bounced back strongly. There have been two films already this year that earned over $700 million in China. Given how competitive and disrupted the U.S. theatrical film landscape is, and how potentially large the Chinese box office is, are you ever tempted to just make Chinese-language films for the Chinese market instead of trying to be a bridge between industries?
Well, Starlight has actually been working on China-subject projects, such as Gold Mountain and Empress of China. But these films, and the creators we are working with, we feel they have the potential to have global market appeal, not just within China. That has always been the kind of Chinese film I want to make — Chinese subject, but for a global market. Very few Chinese films have done this so far.
When you’re working with Hollywood directors who are telling stories that touch on Chinese cultural elements, what do you do to avoid cultural missteps? I ask because pretty much every attempt by a Hollywood filmmaker to make a film involving Chinese culture with the intention of tapping the China box office has failed — from Mulan to the deleted scenes in Iron Man 3 to The Great Wall, which had Zhang Yimou as its director. The Chinese audience seems understandably skeptical about Hollywood filmmakers telling the country and culture’s own story. But you obviously think it’s possible for Hollywood producers, filmmakers and writers to tell a Chinese story to the contemporary Chinese audience successfully?
Yes, the answer is yes. We definitely think there will be films with Chinese subjects that are created by Hollywood filmmakers that are well accepted by the Chinese audience. It all starts with the script. This is why we spend a lot of time working on polishing a script with our directors. The film’s aesthetics are also important and the choice of the writer is important, but the script development is what’s most important to us. We certainly think there will be a Chinese-themed film that will break that barrier and reach both markets — and we hope it’s one of ours.
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