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Reach for the sky

Celestial aims to become TV and film player

HONG KONG — A new studio with a very old secret weapon has set up in Hong Kong. That’s not a reference to Celestial Pictures’ new CEO, 40-year-old William Pfeiffer, who has clocked in nine years as managing director of Sony Pictures’ Columbia TriStar Intl. Television for Asia.

It’s actually a description of the Shaw Bros.’ film library, a cinematic gold mine of 760 Hong Kong classics that Celestial acquired in March 2000 and has since spent $15 million digitally remastering. Most of the films have not been available to audiences since their initial theatrical release.

Pfeiffer, who first tried to acquire the library when he was working at Sony, is privately screening one film per night. “It’s a veritable treasure trove of Chinese cinema from the ’50s to the ’90s,” Pfeiffer says. “From an entertainment point of view they’re still great, and from a historical point of view, they’re fascinating.”

Storing gold

If not for Pfeiffer, Celestial may have remained a storehouse of these classics — for the short term, at least. But Pfeiffer approached Celestial’s owner, Malaysian tycoon Ananda Krishnan, with far grander plans.

Just as he turned Sony’s southeast Asian headquarters into a multilanguage film and television force, he was hired by Krishnan after telling him of his plans to turn Celestial from small-time holding company to big-time studio player providing TV and film content.

Plans are still sketchy, but Pfeiffer envisions increasing Celestial’s staff of 10 to more than 100, with the Chinese and Indian markets the targets for a range of TV and film content delivered over the company’s own yet-to-be-created channels, or through other distribution deals.

Krishnan can help out: Among the holdings of Usaha Tegas, his vast conglom, are two satellites with pan-Asian reach, Malaysian satellite broadcaster Astro as well as Maxis, Malaysia’s leading mobile telephone company.

How did Krishnan get the library? A long-standing relationship with Run Run Shaw, owner of Shaw Bros. and Hong Kong’s largest terrestrial channel TVB, must have helped.

Earlier this year, Krishnan’s Astro pulled out of a deal to invest in Galaxy, TVB’s fledgling pay TV player. This obviously didn’t sour relations between the two tycoons: At Celestial, Pfeiffer works out of offices in the TVB compound.

It turns out Shaw Bros. and TVB both have equity stakes in Celestial. Could Shaw and Krishnan be using Celestial as a vehicle for a joint assault on the regional television and movie market?

It’s still very early on in the process. The first remastered films aren’t expected to be released until mid-2002. But with backing like this, Celestial could quickly turn into a regional player worth watching.

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