Shanghai Film's Ren Zhonglun on the Challenges of Running a Chinese Entertainment Major

The long-time champion and financier of Cannes-winning director Jia Zhangke shares his approach to fusing art and commerce while heading one of China's largest state-backed entertainment conglomerates.

SHANGHAI – It’s almost de rigueur for fans to swarm around their idols at film festivals, and Ren Zhonglun’s admirers were no exception at the Shanghai Film Festival on Wednesday. The producer and industry captain had barely stepped off the stage at a speaking event before hordes descended upon him, demanding autographs to be signed on pieces of paper, business cards and even a few paintings.

“No, I’m not a star,” Ren laughs when The Hollywood Reporter recalls this episode during a meeting the next day. Strictly speaking, he’s correct: a man of letters rather than of the limelight, the 58-year-old has mostly worked behind the scenes for the whole of his life, starting from his beginnings as a scholar, a writer, a film magazine editor and then as head of Shanghai’s state-owned film studio.

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It’s his work as president and chairman of the Shanghai Film Group that has drawn him praise and adoration: now celebrating his tenth year at the helm, Ren has transformed what was once a broke and destitute state-owned entity into one of the biggest media conglomerates in China. The company has just moved into a new headquarters in the center of the city -- a complex which, among other facilities, includes a film museum boasting a strong showcase of artifacts from what is commonly viewed as the birthplace of Chinese cinema.

But perhaps just as importantly, he has been the major and longtime supporter of Jia Zhangke, whose latest Cannes Best Screenplay-winner A Touch of Sin is the sixth film the auteur did with Ren’s and Shanghai Film Group’s backing.

“People say there have been three so-called golden pairings in Chinese cinema: there’s Feng Xiaogang and [Huayi Brothers’ president] Wang Zhonglei, and then there’s Zhang Yimou and Zhang Weiping who have since parted ways,” Ren said. “And there’s Ren Zhonglun and Jia Zhangke – and I’m proud of that.” (Jia, who was a guest at the opening ceremony of the Shanghai Film Museum on Sunday, is in the process of transferring his working registration to Shanghai).

Ren first began working with Jia in 2004, a year after he assumed office in Shanghai. Back then, the director had already attained critical acclaim abroad with films like Platform (a prize-winner at Venice in 2000) and Unknown Pleasures (a Palme d’Or entrant in 2003), but his work remained unsanctioned by the state and was not released in China.

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“He came to discuss the possibility of working with us and he asked, ‘Mr. Ren, if I were to work with Shanghai Film Studio what kind of film would you want me to me to make?’ And I told him I wanted him to make Jia Zhangke films,” said Ren. “Chinese cinema should allow some space for filmmakers like me, so that they could develop that path.”

The result was The World, a story set among workers in a Shenzhen theme park and Jia’s first film to get a screening license in his home country. It was also the beginning of a collaboration with Ren which has since produced the 2006 Golden Lion winner Still Life, the Cannes entries 24 City, I Wish I Knew and A Touch of Sin, and also Han Jie’s Hello! Mr Tree, a project born out of Jia’s talent-development Wings Project.

“To me, the most important thing is to provide him with enough funds to make his films -- that I insisted in investing in his films is already the biggest support I can provide,” Ren said of his partnership with Jia. “And then, there are the challenges he faces when he’s creating his work -- I’ll try to solve them for him. His films tend to reflect social reality and touch on some social issues… I help him co-ordinate working relationships with others in the system. This is what a producer should do."

Ren declined to reveal the specific behind-the-scenes maneuvers he had to make to secure official approval for A Touch of Sin, a film that certainly must have been tricky to get cleared by China’s censors, given the surprising amount of on-screen violence, and bold references to real-life cases of crime and corruption in the country. “We didn’t need to do that much tweaking,” he said, adding that the film wasn’t shown at the Shanghai festival because Jia was making some “final adjustments” to the film, such as changes in subtitles.

He said the major challenge in supporting Jia’s films is fiscal, given their art house pedigree and spirit. “His films are not merely commercial films. But [supporting his films] matched the sentiment driving our company -- that we’re not a company just pursuing business interests. At the same time we’re going to encourage cinema to be artistic in its vision too, rather than just focus on earning money. Of course it’s best if filmmakers can combine both.”

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Ren also said Jia’s films are an example of how film companies should look beyond domestic gross as the sole indicator of a film’s risk factor. “If you know how to choose your films well, it’s not inevitable that you’re going to incur losses with non-commercial films,” he said. “Now I can tell you that we invested about $650,000 (4 million yuan) in Still Life -- but what we earned in Europe alone was much more than what we put in.”

But Ren is quick to emphasize that he runs Shanghai Film Group with “a corporate logic” taking precedent over the artistic sentiment he accumulated for years, first as a Chinese literature and film studies academic, then as a writer and later as editor-in-chief of the Wen Wei Film Times.

After starting his new job at Shanghai Film Group in May 2003, he said, he enrolled to study a master’s degree in business administration at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University. He added that he visits the U.S. regularly -- “more than I go to Hong Kong" -- to observe how American media corporations are run.

It’s a background which opened him up to the diversity he wanted to establish at Shanghai Film Group. And it’s not just in the films he’s producing: as it stands now, the conglomerate also operates more than 1,300 screens across 83 cities in China, a film studio in the outskirts of Chedun, a post-production house co-owned with Technicolor, a movie channel, and also one of Shanghai’s five-star hotels, which regularly hosts industry guests and journalists.

Ren’s aim now is to consolidate the Shanghai Film Group to get listed on the city’s stock market, which will help internationalize the business and lead to more productions involving foreign talent and investors. The company was, in fact, an early collaborator with foreign film entities; back in 2005, it co-produced James Ivory’s The White Countess, a film set (and shot) in Shanghai about a group of Russian expatriates struggling to survive in the city in the 1930s.

Next up will be an adaptation of Chinese novelist Bei La’s The Cursed Piano, a story about Jewish refugees seeking refuge in the city during the second world war. The film will be co-produced by Ren and the Shanghai-born Hollywood veteran Mike Medavoy, directed by Barry Levinson, written by Ronald Harwood and lensed by Christopher Doyle (who also worked on The White Countess, and is best known for his celebrated collaboration with Hong Kong's Wong Kar Wai on such projects as In the Mood for Love). Filming will begin in February, Ren said, and the casting process for the film has already begun.