Executive Suite: Stanley Tong on How to Conquer Chinese New Year Box Office and Reteaming With Jackie Chan

Fang Yifei
Stanley Tong

The Shanghai-based producer-director also gave his thoughts on the state of China co-productions following recent high-profile misfires.

When director Stanley Tong ’s Rumble in the Bronx burst onto the scene in 1996, it famously became the first Jackie Chan movie to score a wide release in North America. The film won its first weekend and went on to earn $32.4 million, catapulting the Hong Kong action hero to the global stage.

Less known, however, is that Rumble also was the first Hong Kong film to get an official release in mainland China, which was then just beginning to open its doors to the world. The film, which was given a 10-day run during the normally quiet Chinese New Year, earned more than 100 million RMB (about $12 million), a huge number at the time. Today, China’s New Year holiday is the most lucrative weeklong movie release window in the world.

More than two decades after they accidentally innovated the Chinese New Year release, Chong and Chan’s latest action-comedy, Kung Fu Yoga, was 2017’s surprise CNY holiday champion, grossing $250 million. On top of co-writing, producing and directing the film, Tong also was one of its financiers, via his Shanghai-based company China Film International, a joint venture with the state-backed China Film Group. Tong, who also owns the boutique Chinese cinema chain Westa, sat down with THR to discuss his decadeslong partnership with Chan, the future of China-Hollywood co-prods and why he used to perform his films’ stunts himself.

What’s your partnership with Jackie Chan like after all these years?

We are very close, but the work is getting harder. For Jackie Chan to be Jackie Chan, he needs to do action-comedy scenes that no one has ever done before — something the audience has never seen. That’s what makes him a hero both on and off the screen. And at this point, it’s getting harder and harder, because he’s done so much already, and the audience has seen so much in other action movies. But my job as a writer, director and stunt coordinator is to come up with something that will feel totally original.

In light of The Great Wall’s recent struggles, do you think China-Hollywood co-productions can work?

There are a lot of people trying to do both lately — to work both sides — with Chinese-Hollywood co-productions. I think you have to find a market to focus on first. If your primary market is North America, get a great American team and let the Chinese people involved just follow. If you want the China market most, then you need to hire key people here and get the movie grounded locally. Doing both, equally ... if it’s not impossible, it’s very, very difficult.

What has your experience owning a theater chain taught you about the mainland Chinese market?

In just the last two years, things have changed a lot. No matter how big your movie is and how much you spend on marketing, if people don’t connect with the story, word of mouth spreads instantly online, and Chinese cinema chains pull it out very quickly. It’s not like a few years ago when big movies could sign a distribution contract and lock in their screen share for two or three weeks. Now you can lock in just three days to one week, maximum. No matter how much you spend on marketing in China, within three days, all that matters is word of mouth.

What’s the key to winning the Chinese New Year box office?

When we were kids, our parents took us to the movies. Now, when young adults go home for Chinese New Year, they take their parents and grandparents to the cinema. You really need to be able to appeal to everyone during this holiday — friends, couples, parents, kids and everyone in the family.

I’ve heard that in your Hong Kong directing days, you rehearsed many stunts yourself before asking the actors to do them. Is that true?

When I first started with Jackie, I was a very young director and stunt coordinator. He’s a few years older than me and was already a big star. So how could I tell him what to do? Instead, I would ask him to come take a look at a stunt I had coordinated, and then I would do it myself. I would often jump first and see if he would do it. But some of the most extreme stunts I wouldn’t do, because they were too dangerous to waste practicing off-camera. Who would be crazy enough to jump off a building without a wire when the cameras aren’t rolling? We assessed the risk of those things based on our prior experience, but we were only going to do it once for the camera.