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Man Behind The Banquet Aspires to Be 'Chinese Warner Bros.'
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Twelve years ago, Wang Zhongjun was on his way back to China from America. In his pocket he had his university diploma as well as US$100,000 he had earned working as a part-time cartoon artist and photographer. His heart was swirling with dreams of fame and success.


Unlike other Chinese mainland students, Wang spent his money setting himself up as boss of a privately-owned company that he believed could one day be the "Chinese Warner Bros."


Since its creation in 1994, Wang and his brother Wang Zhonglei have grown the Huayi Brothers Media Group from a small advertising firm into a media conglomerate running film, television, music, advertising and talent management operations.


They brought talented Chinese directors on board and made a succession of hit films.


Their latest hit The Banquet, a US$20 million film starring Memoirs of a Geisha actress Zhang Ziyi, is a loose adaptation of Hamlet. It tells the tragic story of an empress who is destroyed in a struggle for power inside the palace.


Like the empress, Wang is a person with strong ambitions.


"My ambitions change and evolve, but right now I want to make my company the largest private entertainment group in China. Then maybe we can become number one in Asia and even in the world."


Like many Beijing residents, Wang loves playing cards. Two or three times a week he sits around a table with friends such as Feng Xiaogang, the acclaimed "Fifth Generation" Chinese director, and Ge You, China's most famous male actor who took on a new screen personality when he played the tyrannical usurper in The Banquet.


Feng once complained, "Wang's really mean when he plays cards, even if it's just for a few bucks."


Wang is also obsessed with cars. His garage boasts a Toyota Camry, Mercedes-Benz E300, 560 SEL, S600, SL600, BMW Z8, Z3, X5, 740... the collection is even more impressive if you count in his sixty horses and a houseful of paintings.


Some people say Wang is a "hands-off boss", meaning that he delegates a lot to other people and doesn't get too involved in his company's day-to-day operations.


Yet he has a sure instinct for business, preferring to focus on issues that affect the long-term health of the company.


"Currently I'm working on company finances, on restructuring the company and adopting overseas management practices."


"No entrepreneur knows exactly what he wants until he does it," said Wang, who has dabbled in the medical industry and the auto industry, not to mention the thriving advertising business.


But he clearly has his heart in the film industry.


Wang understands that in the cinema world "stars rule". He encouraged his star director Feng Xiaogang to make six film s all of which have been successful both at the box office and with critics.


"We have a brand, we have money and we have stars," said Wang. "We have spent 600 million yuan (US$75 million) making films and TV series, which is unprecedented for a Chinese private company."


In 2004, Huayi Brothers' four films, A World Without Thieves, Kung Fu Hustle, Kekexili Mountain Patrol, and Breaking News, took in over 350 million yuan (US$43.75 million) at the box office, a staggering 35 percent of total sales in the Chinese film industry that year and a record for a single film company in China. 


This year, Huayi Brothers has invested more than 100 million yuan (US$12.5 million) in two major productions, The Banquet and Battle of Wits, a potential blockbuster that will be released at Christmas. With the two epics and two other low budget film s in the vanguard, they are launching a new onslaught on the box office both in China and overseas.


The first film company to receive a big injection of funds from insurance and banking institutions to help sell distribution rights overseas, Huayi Brothers has solved the cashflow problems that plague many Chinese film companies.


"We're the first film company in China to receive loans from banks without collateral," said Wang, adding that the support from major financial institutions shows that the Chinese film industry is becoming more transparent and professional.


Wang admitted that China's film market is still very young and needs time to develop, yet he believes, "Given the speed at which China's economy is developing, a world-class Chinese entertainment and media group is sure to emerge in the near future."


"Years ago a movie that took in 30 million yuan (US$3.75 million) at the box office was considered good, but now many films earn over 100 million yuan (US$12.5 million) and the figure keeps rising."


Wang said that four movies by Chinese directors have achieved a box office of over 100 million yuan (US$12.5 million): Hero by Zhang Yimou, A World without Thieves by Feng Xiaogang, Kung Fu Hustle by Stephen Chow and The Promise by Chen Kaige.


He said, "The Chinese film industry will be much stronger if six more highly-talented directors emerge soon."


"I think Feng is one of the best directors in China. In the last six or seven years, everyone of his films has made it to the box office top three " said Wang. "Even Steven Spielberg couldn't do that!"


"We've only signed a five-year contract, but I think we will still be cooperating with him in 2010, or even until he's too old to make films!"


Wang is bold and generous in the way he promotes his stars but concerned at the scarcity of top talent.


"Honestly, only Ge You and Jiang Wen (Devils on the Doorstep) can be called first-class Chinese actors. There are no successors in sight yet."


Looking to the future, Wang has been giving opportunities to new actors and directors.


"I think we have to actively foster new talent," said Wang. "Even if their early work is not so great or profitable, it is worth making the investment in order to nurture new stars."


Despite his optimism about the future of the Chinese film industry, Wang is aware that the real competition will come from overseas.


"We are not as good as Hollywood. For now we can only compete with them in the Chinese market," said Wang. "But a few years from now, when someone may already have replaced me in the company, Huayi will still be slugging it out in this long-term struggle."


"There is some rivalry between us and the China Film Group Corporation, that's inevitable," said Wang, "but in terms of global competition, we are fighting the same corner." He added, "The China Film Group Corporation is an excellent company. We compete with each other, cooperate with each other and rely on each other."


Wang and his Huayi team have provided some of the most mouth-watering dishes in the cinematic banquet of 2006.


But that's only a start -- Wang's dreams and his ambitions continue to swirl. This media mogul is not afraid to take on the world.


(Xinhua News Agency October 8, 2006)

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