H.K.'s Mei Ah thinks big for China

Distrib'n firm, sibling unveils 14-pic slate targeting 'North'

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HONG KONG -- Hong Kong-based media distribution company Mei Ah Entertainment and sister production company Big Media have big plans for China that include an adjusted production strategy, a new, multifaceted distribution line and more movie houses.

"Our new strategy for development is definitely 'Toward the North,' " Big Media CEO Charley Zhuo told The Hollywood Reporter.

On Monday at Filmart, the sister companies will unveil a director-driven, 500 million yuan ($72 million) slate of 14 films that targets the Chinese market. The pics include the $12 million July release "Ku Fu Cyborg" by director Jeff Lau; the $1 million Taiwan romantic drama "More Than Close," produced by Terence Chang; the $2 million urban romance "Dirt Rich in Shanghai," produced by Chang, John Woo, Michelle Yeoh, Tang Tsai-yang and Matthew Tong and starring Kelly Lin and Sun Hong-lei; youth dance pic "Beat it," directed by Adam Wong; fantasy comedy "Amazing Stories" from directors Wilson Yip ("Ip Man"), Soi Cheang and Derek Kwok; action comedy "Love Undercover 4" from director Joe Ma; and $2 million Hong Kong drama "Echoes of Rainbow" from the "Beijing Rocks" husband and wife team of Alex Law and Mabel Cheung, this time with Law as director and Cheung as producer.

One of Big Media's upcoming major productions is "Water Margin Soccer," a $6.5 million action comedy set for Chinese New Year 2010 that combines characters of the legendary literary classic with football. Another is the big-budget tentpole "Turandot," a $30 million martial period arts romance from "Red Cliff" scribe Chen Han that's scheduled for end of 2010. The company is in negotiations with directors for both films.

Encouraged by the continuous growth of the exhibition market in China -- which saw a 25% yearly increase in boxoffice and record-breaking grosses thanks to the 300 million yuan blockbusters "Red Cliff" and "If You Are the One" -- the group will now focus on the north for bigger returns while retaining the companies' advantage with bases in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as China, Mei Ah managing director Patrick Tong and Big Media's Zhuo told THR.

"The highest grossing Chinese-language film of 2008 in Hong Kong, 'CJ7,' earned HK$51 million ($6.5 million), whereas Chinese-language films such as 'Red Cliff' have broken the barrier of 300 million yuan ($44 million) in China," Tong said. "With that in mind, we are modifying our production strategy to make films that mainly caters to the market factors in China."

"Mei Ah/Big Media's advantage lies in the fact that we are an experienced Hong Kong-based film company with branches in China and Taiwan," Zhou added. "We can utilize our resources in Hong Kong and Taiwan to produce films that cater to the Chinese market. No matter whether it's a Hong Kong- or Taiwan-made production, we intend for release in China; needless to say, the films we develop in China will be made for the Chinese market."

Moreover, Mei Ah is using its reach in the Greater China region for investments -- through its base in Hong Kong for the Hong Kong Film Development Fund (as was the case of this year's "Give Love"), its branch in Taiwan for production subsidies from the Taipei Film Commission, and from the new investors in China who are drawn by the promising growth in the film industry at a time of global recession.

"The film industry is one area that is showing the largest growth in China at the moment," Zhou said. "Since the economic downturn, investors are putting the money they would have invested elsewhere into films."

To capitalize on the growing market opportunities in China, Mei Ah and its former production arm Big Media have developed an industry chain of production, television distribution (via its Mei Ah Movie Channel (Asia) to Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan) and theatrical distribution in Hong Kong and China. Online movie download and streaming is part of the chain as well.

In mid-2008, Mei Ah established Big China Film Distribution with China's Guangdong Film Co., which distributes Big Media productions as well as outside acquisitions nationwide. The industry chain is set to expand to include exhibition, as Mei Ah develops a 30 million yuan ($4.4 million) project of two 1,500-seat, 6- to 10-screen multiplexes in Beijing and Guangzhou. Mei Ah has also entered into partnerships with provincial network Southern Television Guangdong and CCTV-6 to promote its films.

The establishment of Big China Film Distribution is particularly significant for the expansion of Mei Ah/Big Media in China, for the reach of Guangdong Film Co. enabled the companies' films to get a shot at competitive holiday seasons like the lucrative Chinese New Year slot. The $1 million romantic drama "Give Love," the first film distributed via Big China in China, benefited from its Valentine's Day release slot by grossing $3 million.

"The film wouldn't have taken $3 million if it weren't released during Valentine's Day, and we wouldn't have gotten the release slot if we didn't have a distribution arm in China," Tong said.