Shanghai: Wanda Heir Recruits Young Film Talent at Banana Pictures Gala

Banana Pictures founder Wang Sicong at Shanghai film festival event - H 2019
Courtesy of Banana Pictures

The indie studio founded by the billionaire son of Wanda chairman Wang Jianlin unveiled the winners of its annual young talent competition, handing out large cash rewards and promising to produce six winning scripts.

Banana Pictures, the startup Chinese film studio founded by Dalian Wanda Group scion Wang Sicong, unveiled the winners Tuesday of its second annual new talent competition at a glitzy gala in Shanghai. 

Held at the city's five-star Hyatt on the Bund hotel, the event was one of the hottest tickets at the Shanghai International Film Festival on Tuesday night, as word got out that the billionaire heir would be taking the stage to personally co-host the event.

Wang Sicong delivered on the hype by sauntering to the mic in gold-rimmed glasses, Yeezys and a stonewashed denim jacket to dish out several large cash awards to six selected winners of a year-long screenwriting competition initiated by Banana Pictures. The company also pledged to produce each of the six winning scripts. A series of coruscating neon animations played on enormous screens throughout the event.  

A noted investor and ubiquitous celebrity personality in China, the junior Wang founded Banana Pictures in August 2017. The company is the filmmaking arm of Wang's umbrella Banana Culture Group, which includes an e-sports and gaming company; a sports management outfit; and a startup music studio. Wang also holds the title of director at his father's Chinese real estate and entertainment conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, which owns Legendary Entertainment and a large state in North America's largest cinema chain, AMC Entertainment.

Although still light on feature releases, Banana Pictures has established a reputation as hip, youth-oriented film company in the short time since its founding. It has taken investment positions in select film titles initiated by other studios — such as Taiwanese actress Rene Liu's directorial debut Us and Them, which earned $193 million in 2018 — and become known for its efforts to attract and cultivate young film talent.

Dubbed the "New Screenwriters Dream Fulfillment Project," the talent competition that was brought to a close at Tuesday's event put out an open call for screenplay entries to any Chinese writer under the age of 40. The company says it attracted some 3,170 scripts, which were narrowed down by its development team to 50 finalists. Those were then assessed by a jury of Chinese industry veterans, including screenwriter Yuan Yuan (Us and Them, Chinese Oscar submission Go Away Mr. Tumor), Taiwanese producer Jiao Xiongping, Shu Huan (best known for penning the blockbusters Lost in Thailand and Lost in Hong Kong), Liu Yi (writer of China's all-time box-office champ Wolf Warrior 2), and Zhou Zhiyong, a frequent collaborator of local hitmaker Ning Hao.

"The winning six scripts we'll definitely invest in, develop and put onscreen," Wei Xiangdong, Banana Pictures CEO told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview before the event (Wang is the company's chairman). "But those other 44 finalists are people the company will maintain relationships with and seek to cooperate with in the future," Wei said.

"This project is really about finding and cultivating new talent," he explained. "There are so many talented young people in China, but our industry doesn't have the infrastructure yet to channel them into the film sector in an efficient way."

Standing onstage Tuesday, Wang elaborated on the inspiration behind Banana Pictures: "Most listed film companies have so much pressure about the allocation of capital and human resources," he said. "For me, this isn't an issue. I founded this company not to fight for profits with the big guys. Instead, I do this because I don't have to be bothered by such quarterly targets, and I want to put some money to work to help our film sector, which is lacking creative infrastructure."

The three third-place winners in Banana Pictures' screenwriting contest were each awarded cash prizes of RMB 800,000 ($115,000), while two second-place finisher took home RMB 1.2 million ($175,000). The top winner was rewarded with RMB 1.5 million ($217,000) and the promise that her script would go into production this year.

The winning script, a romantic comedy called My Hugh Grant and I, about a young Chinese woman who travels to England in pursuit of romance inspired by the movies, will be executive produced by cinematographer turned producer, Peter Pau (director of photography on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, among many others).

The Banana Pictures' 2019 screenwriting competition followed the company's first such exercise in 2018, which presented prizes and future directing gigs to an array of aspiring filmmakers after a similarly expansive, open-call short film competition. The winning directors and writers from both years will go through additional mentorship programs and professional training at Banana Pictures, the company said. 

"I don’t care what their background is, or if they are from a professional film school," Wang said of the program. "As long as they want to be a director, scriptwriter, or they are willing to get into the competition, then I will provide the most immediate means — [capital] — of rewarding them for exciting work." 

He added: "It is not easy to pursue a creative life, especially at the beginning when you must struggle to make a living. I just hope they don’t give up their dreams."

The studio also highlighted a pair of upcoming youth-oriented films it co-financed — comedy dramas Sheep without a Sheppard and The Last Wish.

The Last Wish was acquired at the Cannes Film Festival in May by CMC Pictures for a North American theatrical release. The feature is the latest project from Chinese director Tian Yusheng, best known as the creator and director of the hit breakup comedy series The Ex-Files — films that have collectively earned more than $400 million.

The film follows Liu Xuan (played by Peng Yuchang), a high-school boy who is diagnosed with a fatal disease. His two best friends (played by Wang Dalu and Wei Daxun) then decide to help him realize his last wish — to "become a man" by losing his virginity. Hijinks and learning experiences ensue.