5 Questions With China's Hottest Film Studio of 2017
Song Ge, chairman of Beijing Culture, explains the company's approach to mega-blockbuster 'Wolf Warrior 2' and why he's setting up a $300 million film fund in China rather than investing in Hollywood.
Business has been brisk for Chinese film studio Beijing Culture in 2017.
The company was one of the lead producers of mega-blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2, which earned an astonishing $854 million in the Middle Kingdom over the summer. And Beijing Culture's chairman, Song Ge, a respected veteran of the local industry, has since set about assembling a stable of some of the biggest directors in the Chinese industry, inking longterm collaboration agreements with Wu Jing (Wolf Warrior 2), Wuershan (Mojin: The Lost Legend, $278 million in 2015) and Ning Hao (Breakup Buddies, $195 million in 2014), among others.
Song also recently signed a strategic cooperation agreement with Jack Ma's Alibaba Pictures and took a seat on the board of startup Los Angeles production company The H Collective, with which Beijing Culture will co-produce the fourth xXx film starring Vin Diesel (the third installment earned $164 million in China in February).
Beijing Culture has two more releases coming out before year-end — fantasy comedy Hanson and the Beast on Dec. 29. and Feng Xiaogang's Youth on Dec. 15 — and an ambitious tentpole slate in varying stages of production, including the sci-fi film The Wandering Earth and fantasy trilogy The Creation of Gods, to be produced by Oscar winner Barrie M. Osborne (The Lord of the Rings).
THR caught Song for a short chat in Beijing Culture's Chinese headquarters to discuss the secret to Wolf Warrior 2's success and why he thinks slate investments at Hollywood studios tend to be a bad deal for Chinese companies.
You're forging ties in Hollywood but so far you've opted not to get involved in official China-U.S. co-productions. What's the thinking behind your approach to collaboration with the American industry?
We are exploring two ways of working with the U.S. film industry. First, we are hiring Hollywood teams for some of the Chinese films we produce. For Wolf Warrior 2, for example, we brought in foreign action coordinators and a musical director. For The Creation of Gods, our upcoming fantasy franchise, we hired American producer Barrie Osborne (The Lord of the Rings) and a U.S. stunt company.
Second, we're working with Hollywood companies to be involved in globally distributed English-language films. For Vin Diesel's xXx 4, we're sending over Chinese actors, and we're also involved in the financing and production.
These aren't official co-productions. It's very difficult to co-produce a film that works in both markets and fits both Western and Chinese values. I think the two approaches we are pursuing are easier ways of working together, which are more likely to lead to success.
You had a strategic cooperation agreement with the Russo brothers, which led to their involvement in Wolf Warrior 2. They later signed a new deal with Huayi Brothers. Where does that leave your relationship?
When we shot Wolf Warrior 2, that agreement between us was still valid. They weren't investors in the film; they just introduced us to Sam Hargrave (the veteran stunt coordinator behind The Avengers films and Wolf Warrior 2) and offered some consultation. They were a tremendous help to us. Our deal ended when they signed the new agreement with Huayi Brothers, but we will remember how they helped us and I wouldn't rule out working with them again on other projects, although nothing is planned as of now.
Is the domestic Chinese market the primary target for your upcoming slate or is greater international success also a goal?
The domestic market is still the main source of revenue for us, so we focus most of our development attention and energy here. But I do value the idea of reaching people at box offices around the world, and we want this to be part of Beijing Culture as a company.
There are two things Chinese films need to do better to reach the world. First, our films need to be about universal values that can appeal to human beings everywhere — the relationship between father and son, love of country, friendship and betrayal, timeless romance etc.
Second, the language of the filmmaking itself must cater to a global sensibility, with a storytelling structure and cinematographic technique that is accessible to all. The Americans have been the best at making movies that are universal in this way, but there is no reason that China can't do it too.
Beijing's current restrictions on international investing in the entertainment sector mean that it's not possible at the moment for Chinese companies to make major new investments in Hollywood film slates. But if the regulations relax, would an investment of that kind interest you? Many of your peers have done deals like that.
No, I'm not interested in a Hollywood slate deal. With those deals the Chinese partner never has enough insight into the U.S. studio's global marketing and distribution spending. We can't investigate or get a full picture of their marketing and distribution costs in over 100 countries around the world. So, the exact return on the films is basically set by them. It's a very uncertain situation for us.
Also, when you sign a slate deal, the Hollywood studio usually takes out the biggest and best films and you're only allowed to invest in the less certain titles — so I don't see the meaning and value in it. For example, [the recent slate deal at] Universal — they took out Minions and The Fast and the Furious movies. I think the Chinese side will be lucky if they get half of their investment back.
So, instead of investing in a Hollywood slate, we are working with local partners to put together a film fund of around $300 million to finance our own slate. This offers a sound investment strategy and will create more value for Beijing Culture. We just want to produce good films for the audience in China and around the world — and we feel very good about our slate for the next one to two years.
Beijing Culture has staked out a strong position in the Chinese industry quite quickly. What do you see as the key drivers of your recent successes?
Well, there are a few things. People are the most important asset in this industry, and we have put together a very strong team, from film development to production, post-production, marketing and distribution. Throughout the whole chain we have some of the best people in the Chinese business. We also have an in-house data-analytics department that gives us insight into the latest preferences of the Chinese audience, which plays a big part in our development process.
Second, we have worked to be a very director-friendly company. We collaborate with filmmakers with a very generous and fair-minded approach, providing them with a platform of services and support to help them produce the best film they can. Thanks to this, we have quickly built a reputation as a company that directors love to work with, so we have signed many of China's finest filmmakers.