TV in the stars for Celestial


HONG KONG -- Hong Kong's Celestial Pictures is shifting its focus away from film production and distribution in favor of TV production and the continued exploitation of its 760-title Shaw Brothers library, the world's largest Chinese film collection.

Celestial said today Monday that Kadokawa Entertainment has purchased a range of Shaw Brothers classics for distribution in Japan on mobile, video and VOD, and pay and free TV. Meanwhile, MGM Channel Central Europe, which reaches viewers in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, paid for martial arts titles including "The Five Deadly Venoms" and "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin."

While Celestial declined to disclose the value of the sales, its Shaw Brothers library is the company's prime source of revenue -- generating nearly $52 million in 2007 via licensing and distribution of the library and the Celestial movie channel.

Terry Mak, executive vp distribution and TV networks, said that Celestial plans more in-house production of TV shows and drama series and aims to focus on the distribution of TV series it buys across Southeast Asia. Film production and distribution will no longer be a priority.

"The market has changed. We realized it is harder for imported films to do good business," Mak said in an interview. "Only the films with big budgets and big names can make it here. Now we tend to be more selective, only to distribute projects that we are sure to be profitable."

In 2007, Celestial released "The Golden Compass," earning HK$14.6 million ($1.9 million), well below the Hong Kong boxoffice topper, "Spider-Man 3," which grossed HK$55 million ($7 million).

Mak declined comment ondid not offer details about upcoming TV plans. Recent Celestial productions include the 40-episode period drama "Empress Feng of the Northern Wei Dynasty," which it is negotiating to broadcast in China. It also bought Southeast Asian distribution rights to the 60-episode "Journey to the West," which is now in preproduction in China with a budget of 120 million yuan ($17 million) and Huang Xiaoming ("The Banquet") in the lead.

Celestial also will take a cautious approach to the sale of remake rights to Shaw Brothers classics, Mak said. Remakes of "The Five Deadly Venoms" and "The Flying Guillotine" are in development.

The strategy to move film to the back burner follows an annual loss reported by Celestial's mother company Astro All Asia Networks. Astro, which also operates WaTV, a Chinese youth culture infotainment channel launched in 2006 around Southeast Asia, reported a loss of $3.7 million for the year ending Jan. 31, down from a year-ago profit of $47.4 million.

Celestial CEO William Pfeiffer left the company in March after seven years to set up a TV production and distribution business with minority funding from Lionsgate. Pfeiffer will not be replaced.

"Our business operation is running smoothly," Mak said. "Various department heads can take care of their own areas. There's no need for a replacement."