In his light blue short-sleeved shirt and dark trousers, the slim and athletic Ren Zhonglun looks more like a university don than a movie producer and the senior executive of an entertainment empire in Shanghai, the nation's most cosmopolitan city.
His quiet voice and unassuming manner are a true reflection of the pragmatic strategy that has laid the foundations for the entry of Shanghai's movie and entertainment industry onto the global marketplace. As the president of the Shanghai Film Group Corp (SFG), Ren oversees the production of more than 20 feature films, cartoons and documentaries and 300 episodes of TV dramas every year. With total assets in excess of 2 billion yuan (US$250 million), the SFG is China's second-largest movie production house, after Beijing-based China Film Corp.
In the greenhouse-style conference room at the SFG's headquarters, Ren says there is no magic formula for filmmaking. This former professor of Chinese literature at Shanghai Normal University said that although movies belong to the arts, "Everything we do must be commercially viable."
To ensure that this is the case, Ren has been responsible for a number of innovations. The most important of these, according to him, is to have started cooperating with "non-Chinese mainland" directors, producers, artistes and specialists in many different aspects of filmmaking.
In an industry where the major players are known to have massive egos, seeking outside help is not something that can be discussed casually. But Ren was obviously persuasive enough, as he convinced the SFG's board of directors and his colleagues that outside expertise was required to help the company break into overseas markets. In the past couple of years, "we have produced several box office hits that were directed by Hong Kong directors," Ren said.
Among the few Hong Kong directors of international renown, Ren is particularly fond of Wong Kar Wai, whose avant-garde technique and dreamy style have won him numerous overseas awards. Wong has directed two highly acclaimed movies, 2046 and Subway, for the SFG. My Blueberry Nights, Woang's third movie for the SFG, which has a budget in excess of US$10 million, is in the final stages of production.
"We have a lot of respect for the Hong Kong directors we have worked with," said Ren. "There are many things we can learn from them, especially in terms of special effects, something that can have a great impact on foreign audiences," he said.
With Ren's encouragement, the SFG took the lead among Chinese film producers to cast foreign stars in its movies. For example, the multinational cast of My Blueberry Nights includes Oscar winners Kevin Spacey and Rachel Weisz, Oscar nominee Jude Law, and Grammy winner Norah Jones.
Despite its occasional bold moves, Ren understands that the SFG cannot hope to compete head-to-head with the Hollywood studios in the international market, at least in the foreseeable future. "We are not well capitalized to take big risks," he said. "We may never be able to pick ourselves up after one major flop," he added.
Learning a lesson from South Korea, Ren believes that there is an attractive niche market internationally for relatively smaller budget, well-made movies with country-specific themes. This niche market used to be dominated by French and German films. But in recent years, Hong Kong filmmakers have made inroads into this market with kung fu films that delight cinemagoers around the world with their carefully choreographed hand-to-hand combat action.
But Ren said that kung-fu action films from Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland are facing stiff competition from Hollywood filmmakers who have "learned these tricks and are doing it better than us." Chinese filmmakers will just have to find other ways to survive, he said.
Ren believes that Chinese films reflecting the nation's dramatic social and economic changes will have a wide audience both inside and outside the Chinese mainland. The growing popularity of modern Chinese paintings, particularly those that highlight conflicts brought about by the fast-changing social landscape, is an indication of overseas interest in the latest developments on the Chinese mainland. "We need to tell a good story about modern-day life in China to attract foreign movie fans," Ren said.
In doing that, he insists that a cautious approach must be taken. "We must first try to secure a wide enough audience in our own markets on the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan," Ren said. When that's assured, "we won't have to worry about losses," he said. "Anything we earn from overseas distribution will be pure profit."
His strategy is to include some of the most popular film stars from each market in the cast of every movie. "In every movie we made in recent years, we have had the hottest stars from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan," Ren said. "We found that combination to be a guarantee of box-office success in those three markets," he said.
To further ensure success on the Chinese mainland, the SFG has invested heavily in expanding its network of cinemas in Shanghai and some other Chinese mainland cities. The company's Shanghai United Film Circuit consists of 82 franchised multiplexes in Shanghai with a total of 224 screens. Box office receipts in 2005 totaled 246 million yuan (US$30.75 million), up from 142 million yuan (US$17.75 million) in 2003.
In addition, SFG entered into a joint venture with US entertainment giant Warner Brothers to develop and manage a separate cinema chain, Shanghai Yonghua Cinema. Opened in 2003, Yonghua ranked first among all cinema chains in box office receipts for three consecutive years.
The SFG has also entered into an agreement with CJ, South Korea's biggest entertainment corporation, to open a new cinema this October.
"We believe in international cooperation in all our businesses," said Ren. "It has been a formula of success in combining the specific expertise of our overseas partners, who include Hong Kong directors, foreign actors and actresses, and special effects experts, with our knowledge of the domestic market, excellent local connections, well-established production facilities and an expanding distribution network," he said.
"What we need to do is to keep producing marketable movies."
(China Daily August 9, 2006)