East meets West on biz’s front line

Straight-shooting PolyBana builds empire on global market model

Sometimes called “the Chinese Miramax,” PolyBona is a bastion of independence and private enterprise in a sector where state-run titans such as China Film Group have long ruled in distribution, production, exhibition and financing.

PolyBona’s founder, Yu Dong, has stepped cleverly around possible pitfalls of the movie business in China, avoiding confrontation and backstabbing and getting on with the job of building the country’s largest private distribution companies.

“We’ve been one of few companies on the front line — observing the China film market from the first reforms to the present system. We’ve also formed strategies by observing the overseas film business,” he said in a recent interview.

Still in his 30s, Yu has broken all kinds of new ground in the last six or seven years. PolyBona has distributed nearly 100 domestic and Hong Kong co-produced films, such as “Confession of Pain,” “The Myth,” “Initial D” and “The Peacock,” capturing more than 20% of the overall market share for four years running.

A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Yu went on to work at China’s largest film complex, Beijing Film Studio. He was then in charge of domestic distribution at China Film Group for several years before he set up the Beijing Bona Culture Communication Co. in 1999. PolyBona was one of the first private firms to be granted a distribution license by the China Film Bureau.

PolyBona has been well-placed to take advantage of China’s growing domestic biz. Yu’s policy has been to build up good will among cinema managers in China, using screenings to show that PolyBona was capable of getting people into the cinemas and also of keeping piracy in check.

In 2003, PolyBona moved into production, investing coin in pics such as “All About Love,” “Dragon Tiger Gate” and Xu Anhua’s “The Postmodern Life of My Aunt.” Last year, PolyBona invested in 18 feature films.

A major step for the company was the move into the distribution of foreign films, a tricky business in China because of strict importation rules.

PolyBona merged in November 2003 with China Poly Group, which is the wealthy business conglomerate wing of the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army, to form PolyBona Film Distribution.

Yu says he intends to focus on distributing movies imported from Europe and Asia for the next few years. Last year, PolyBona successfully distributed several imported films, such as “Daisy” (Korea), “Sky Fighters” (France) and “Sinking of Japan” (Japan).

Yu has also turned his attention to developing China’s fledgling exhibs, and he chairs the board of the PolyWanhe cinema chain group, which currently owns 70 screens. He has invested in building nine five-star multiplex cinemas in Chongqing in southwestern China and plans to build 15 more cinemas with more than 200 screens over the next five years. Yu has also established his own advertising firm and performance company.

PolyBona has developed a reputation for being good at marketing and attracting worthwhile product, and Yu believes that as the biz becomes more market-oriented and international, the company’s professionalism, standardized management and vision will help it to keep growing.

The company’s corporate mottoes embody the principles of New Chinese capitalism, a combination of old-style rhetoric with modern notions of management: “Work sincerely with the firm’s trademark in mind” and “Learn the strong points of others, and listen to all voices.”

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