Former CAA China Boss Jonah Greenberg on His New Beijing Production Company

THR Jonah Greenberg - H 2015
Fang Yifei

THR Jonah Greenberg - H 2015

The industry veteran discusses transitioning from agent to producer, his desire to empower Chinese filmmakers and his ambitious first project: "The timing feels right."

After seven years as head of CAA China, consummate Beijing insider Jonah Greenberg is branching out on his own.

Greenberg exited CAA in February to launch the Beijing-based boutique development and production company Salty Pictures. The transition from agent to producer is something of a homecoming for the 42-year-old executive. A fluent Mandarin speaker, Greenberg got his start in the Chinese industry producing local-language projects for Chinese film company Ming Productions in the early 2000s.

In 2005, Greenberg and fellow indie producer Peter Loehr were hired by CAA to establish Hollywood's first talent agency office in China with full-time representation. When Loehr left in 2012 to join Legendary Entertainment, Greenberg took over at the helm of CAA China. During his tenure the company signed a landmark joint-venture agreement with the influential Chinese investment firm CMC Capital Partners, while also handling some of the most high-profile placements of Chinese actors into Hollywood films (Donnie Yen in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), as well as securing opportunities for U.S. talent in Chinese blockbusters (Frank Grillo in Wu Jing's Wolf Warrior 2).

Greenberg's departure from CAA was said to be entirely amicable, and at Salty Pictures he will be represented by CAA’s Media Finance team. Two of Salty Pictures' first projects, currently in development, will be the co-production Burma Road, a World War II film produced by Chinese industry veteran Han Sanping; and The Lost Daughter of Happiness, an epic period drama scripted by Yan Geling (Youth, Coming Home). Set amid the Chinese immigrant communities of 19th century San Francisco, the story is based on Geling's 2015 novel of the same name.

Prior to Hong Kong's Filmart, THR sat down with Greenberg — who resides with his wife in Beijing's Chaoyang Park area, a district known as something of a haven for China's filmmaking elite — to discuss his vision for Salty Pictures and the curious paradox of why Chinese films have achieved diminishing international success as the industry has grown more powerful. 

Why did you decide to leave CAA to establish Salty Pictures?

You might say that the voice just got louder and louder, saying that it's time to go and do this. It was something I had been talking to my bosses at CAA about for quite a while, and it's something they knew I always wanted to go back and do. Before starting the CAA office here in Beijing 13 years ago with Peter Loehr, he and I were producing Chinese movies. I always sort of knew I wanted to go back to that, when the time was right. I might have done it a little sooner, but it was really important to all of us that the CAA China team was well equipped to move forward and continue to grow. I didn’t want to take any risks. We talked for a long time about how and when to make this transition.

How are you structuring the company and how large will your team be?

There is a non-Chinese entity incorporated in Hong Kong and a Chinese entity set up in Tianjin. The relationship between these companies is basically me — I own and control them both. And we're tiny — just four people. It's me, two junior development executives who are both Chinese and my assistant. I'd really prefer to stay as small as possible. Not because I don’t want to take on the financial risk of having a big payroll; it's more about the time burn that comes with dealing with large numbers of people. One of the reasons I finally made this move was because I want to focus on storytelling, working intimately with directors and actors, putting together projects that I'm passionate about — not running a company, and hiring and firing people.

What kind of projects will Salty Pictures be developing and producing?

My interests are weighted heavily towards the digital new media space, but the entertainment business I've grown up in has mainly been theatrical film culture. I still really believe in that form of storytelling. We're lucky here in China that the box office and motion picture business is so vibrant that we can continue pursuing that without a second thought.

So I would describe Salty Pictures' areas of activity as falling into five buckets. The first thing that I'm looking at is small-budget, director-driven Chinese-language movies. For these I'll be working with Chinese filmmakers and trying to empower them, as their producer, to tell their own stories in their own way. The second bucket — slightly more ambitious — is medium-budget co-productions that are character and story-driven, where the subject matter really drives the project. Third will be participating in China's very robust market for long-form episodic content, most likely online. Then I've also taken an equity stake in a company where we will be incubating stories, IP and characters through short form content. The last area is audio content, which is further afield in terms of being a buzz word in China yet, but I do believe it's something that is coming. I want to diversify into all these areas — traditional theatrical filmmaking, television and digital content in its myriad new forms.

Let's start with the co-production category. As a means of China-Hollywood collaboration, doing co-productions has gone through a few cycles of hype and disappointment. How are you going to approach it? 

Co-production is a weird industry word. It takes on an outsized significance in China, where there are all these official approvals and special considerations about the technical status of the movie. And I think that creates a lot of undo fuss about what the movie is.

Perhaps the best way to answer that question is by giving the example of the first project that Salty Pictures is developing. It's a project I'm going to do with Han Sanping (former head of China Film Group) with the working title of Burma Road. We're developing it both as a film and a long-form series. We're doing it as a co-production only because it doesn't make sense to do it any other way. The film centers on an episode in WWII where the Chinese and Americans teamed up on a key front in the fight against the Japanese. If you have Americans here 60 years ago chewing barbed wire alongside their Chinese brothers in arms, I believe that's a story that deserves to be told — and it just makes sense to make the movie in a way that works for both the American and Chinese audience. That has been and probably always will be sort of a high wire act — getting it to connect in both places. But it just so happens that this story — which is based on real history — requires actors, characters and perspectives from both sides. 

In general, our co-productions will need to be rooted in a particular market, most likely China. One lesson that we've learned is that it is indeed very difficult for a movie to be all things to all audiences. So I am trying to be very disciplined about where the movie lives and dies. We will remain flexible and open to all great stories, but most likely most of what we do is going to be justified through the China market.

How far along is Burma Road?

Believe it or not, Han Sanping and I have been talking about wanting to do this movie for seven years. It's going to be fairly big, so it may not be the first Salty Pictures project to turn the camera on — we may go into production with a smaller Chinese film or two first. Bruce McKenna, who did Band of Brothers and The Pacific, is writing our script. Michael Shamberg (Gattaca, Django Unchained) and Alan Greisman (The Bucket List) are our producer partners. It feels like an early 2019 production.

What attracts you to short form content creation?

In China, as in Hollywood, shortform content is of course one of the buzz words of 2018. But I see it as very symbiotic with the other content I am developing. It might be something as cynical as being able to do test balloons or trials without breaking the bank to see what works and doesn't work. There are some stories I really love and would like to develop as movies, but which frankly feel a little risky. So having an interesting way to try them out, that makes a lot of sense to me. One I've been looking at involves an 80-year-old main character and it's not particularly commercial at all, but I think it's a very moving story. In short form, I can work with that actor and produce some things that will allow us to see how people respond to it in real time online in China.

How do you assess Hollywood's past attempts at local-language production here and what are you going to do differently?

Well, that can be a little sensitive, and I certainly don't want to speak ill of anyone's work, or their admirable attempts to figure things out. But people in the Chinese film industry often make the generalization that the difference between their industry and Hollywood is that one is director-centric and the other is producer-centric. That dynamic has often played out as kind of a clash. The U.S. studios, by nature, need to control things — creatively, business-wise, in every way. They have the last word. In China, a lot of directors who have had success are used to having the last word on things, both creatively and financially. Whether you're talking about Xu Zheng putting together Lost in Thailand, or Feng Xiaogang, or Wu Jing with Wolf Warrior 2 — they don't have to answer to anyone.

So I'm not going to try to fuck with that, by saying "I am the producer and I am going to hire you and tell you what to do." For me, it's going to be about using the relationships I have here, and the knowledge I've gained of this landscape over the past 15 years, to find really great storytellers to empower — rather than going out and telling people that I know how to tell their stories better than they do.

One problem for the studio's is that their approach has largely been a remake strategy, which by definition is controlling. You're telling the local filmmaker, this is the starting point — the foundation of this film is not you, it's us. Some remakes do make a lot of sense, but I intend my approach to be more director-driven. 

What are some of your impressions about how Chinese tastes are changing, or how the market is evolving?

Just five years ago it was sort of like a winner-takes-all market, where the blockbusters claimed pretty much everything. But the market now has real breadth and depth, where it's a real box office with the capacity to support specialty films and a diversity of genres. We are seeing things we never would have seen before, like Paths of the Soul, a very experimental movie about a Tibetan pilgrimage, which was made for about $2 million and earned $15 million. That definitely wouldn’t have happened five years ago. So the timing feels right for a company like Salty Pictures; we can produce high-quality, socially relevant movies and there will be a market for them. I feel pretty lucky and grateful for that. Even though theatrical is almost a bad word in show business in the U.S. these days, over here everything is still growing and improving.  

What do you think it will take for Chinese films to start making more of an impact overseas?

This is one of the frustrations that kind of propelled me to make this final move. Why is it that Chinese movies have not been even remotely succeeding outside of China? I see it as a collective failure of all of us who are working in this industry. If you go back 15 years ago and beyond, there were Chinese films like Zhang Yimou's Raise the Red Lantern and Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine, which were internationally appreciated and recognized. So what happened?

Part of it is that we are spoiled here by the home market. If you consider a Finnish or Swedish director, they can't really have much of a future if they only succeed in their tiny home market. So they have to train and discipline themselves to be able to cut it in Hollywood, or throughout Europe, or on the global stage. Whereas in China, you can make a movie for $5 million like Xu Zheng did with Lost in Thailand and earn almost $200 million — just from China. So why bother doing that really difficult work of figuring out how to be successful both at home and globally? This is one reason.

Another one of my theories is that there has been a sort of brain drain. It wasn't until five years ago that movies in China could make serious money, so a lot of China's most brilliant young people went and did something else, because so many industries were just exploding. Why not go into tech or real estate and make billions? No one knew you could make billions in the Chinese film industry until just three years ago. There was so much growth and opportunity in this country over the past decade. It takes a while for things to slow down and people to say, I'm going to pursue this dream of becoming a writer or director, and it doesn't come at the cost of other irresistible opportunities.

How is the streaming landscape different in China and what excites you about developing and producing content for these platforms?

There is a really interesting convergence between the digital world and theatrical film industry in China right now. That's somewhat evidenced by Tencent and Alibaba's recent deals with Wanda, and it's definitely evidenced by the way the mobile ticketing apps Maoyan and Tao Piao Piao from Alibaba are working with the theatrical industry to drive fantastic box office results.

It feels like it's much more of a win-win between theatrical and digital in China, and there's less of that fear you find in the U.S. that it's a zero-sum game. There doesn't seem to be the same tension that you see between Netflix and the traditional theatrical industry.

Some stories just lend themselves to being told over 10 to 20 episodes. The streaming space in the Chinese market has really gotten going in the past couple years, where there is now enough competition between the platforms and a solid model for getting shows financed. And these shows don't have the tiny budgets of five or 10 years ago. We're not seeing the monster $10 million to $15 million per episode budgets of Game of Thrones, but we are seeing $2 million to $3 million per episode for shows which only target the domestic Chinese market. That’s enough to do some really interesting stuff. It's a very exciting time to be producing content for basically any distribution channel.