Berlin: Emperor Motion Pictures' CEO Albert Lee on Hong Kong Film and Hollywood (Q&A)

The veteran Hong Kong exec discusses competing with China, the need for more local film talent and his favorite soccer team's prospects this year.

If you’re looking for a Hong Kong executive with the territory’s DNA programmed into his bones, Emperor Motion Pictures CEO Albert Lee is your man.

The University of Cardiff-educated exec spent 21 years at Hong Kong studio Golden Harvest during which time he oversaw sales of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies to a world hungry for that territory’s unique blend of martial arts and comedy. Since taking over Emperor Motion Pictures in 2003, he has expanded the Hong Kong sales and production outfit’s links with mainland China.

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The fate of the Hong Kong industry has become inextricably linked to that of the People’s Republic, and Lee, 60, has been a pioneer in developing production and growing the market in China. Among Emperor’s successes have been Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly in 2010 and Jackie Chan’s CZ12 in 2012. Emperor is bringing to Berlin the Dante Lam psychological thriller That Demon Within, which stars Daniel Wu as a dutiful police constable wracked by doubt after he saves the life of a ruthless killer played by Nick Cheung.

The married exec has one daughter, Sharon, who works for Embankment Films in London. Lee, a vegetarian, has a passion for food, and Emperor’s annual journalist gathering at the Hong Kong Filmart is always much anticipated for its Chinese hotpot. A dedicated fan of English Premier League soccer team Arsenal FC, Lee spoke to THR about the challenges facing the Hong Kong film industry.

What is the Hong Kong film sector’s relationship with China like these days?

Lee: To me personally it’s an identity crisis issue. Do we still consider ourselves Hong Kong cinema or are we a part of greater China cinema? A lot of filmmakers in Hong Kong would dearly love to hang on to the Hong Kong tag. But because of the market situation that has changed rapidly over the years, we are gearing more and more towards the China market. Compromises have to be made because we are two countries as far as films are concerned. They operate on one system and we operate on a very different system.

China is an enormous market now, almost $3.6 billion in box office, but it’s not an easy market to work in and there are a lot of problems — creative problems, market problems — that we need to overcome. China has developed very quickly over the years, but sometimes too quickly, as the infrastructure has not developed as quickly and the systems are not in place. 

One of the common complaints about the Hong Kong business is that there is a shortage of talent. Is that still the case?

Lee: There are younger filmmakers coming through, but I think not enough. Only maybe two or three have emerged in the last few years. If you look around, all the filmmakers these days have been around for at least 10, 12, 15 years, if not more. I am concerned about sufficient talent coming through, both in front and behind the camera. If you look at film, Andy Lau has been around quite some time, Jackie Chan, of course, and so on. The younger screen talents, there aren’t enough, and that makes it difficult for producers to proceed with projects because you have only that many talents to choose from and that drives the price up.

What challenges do Hong Kong and China face in terms of competing with Hollywood?

Lee: Certainly, the threat from Hollywood is getting greater and Chinese producers and the Chinese government are quite aware of the threat. To comply with a World Trade Organization ruling, China has to open up the market. It’s grown to 34 films under the quota. But if you look at the 2013 box office breakdown, Chinese films have regained the upper hand. But from the outside, that has to be a bit artificial as there are ways to make, say, Gravity compete with Hunger Games, by manipulating certain areas such as play dates — they possibly reduce the impact of the so-called Hollywood invasion, leaving greater room for local productions. From a local, Chinese producer’s point of view, this is not necessarily a bad thing, because Chinese cinema needs time to establish itself. If it’s an open market, Chinese cinema would be overwhelmed very quickly. I’m not a great supporter of trade barriers or whatever, but from a producer’s point of view I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.

Hollywood is obsessed with co-productions and finding the Chinese superhero film. Is it a bit of a Holy Grail?

Lee: It’s very elusive. We’ve been talking to different people, American companies wanting to explore the possibility of doing co-productions. It’s difficult, because the subject matter is very hard to find. You need to be able to identify projects and subject matters that are workable on both sides. At the moment, some of the co-productions appear to be too artificial and they end up pleasing no one.

Dante Lam’s action drama That Demon Within premieres as part of the Berlinale’s Panorama Special section. What drew you to the latest Lam project?

Lee: It’s about the inner demons of a person. It’s a story about redemption and conflict — self-conflict. It’s a much darker film than Dante’s previous film, which was Unbeatable. It’s very typical Hong Kong — the cops-and-robbers drama — and Hong Kong has been famous for that for many years. The entire film was shot in Hong Kong using primarily a Hong Kong cast, and Dante has been making this kind of film for several years. It’s kind of his specialty.

Any predictions about how Arsenal will fare this year?

Lee: I don’t think Arsenal will win the English Premier League this season. I think they’ll be third behind Manchester City and Chelsea. They are still one or two players short of becoming champions.