Brothers rock indie sector

Hua Yi founders build powerhouse with festival, box office hits

SHANGHAI — Wang Zhongjun, the 48-year-old CEO and founder of Hua Yi Brothers Film Investment Co., is at the heart of China’s efforts to build a movie sector that nurtures talent and produces films with a broad appeal that actually make money, a rare thing at the local B.O.

“In the late 1990s, lots of business people were making good money in Beijing, and looking for places to invest,” says Wang. “I started to think about films as a way to make money.”

Taking advantage of the rapid opening of the industry to private investment, Wang has built a company that in six years has made over 20 movies, and produces more than 200 hours of TV drama annually. At the same time, he runs one of Beijing’s major advertising companies and a talent agency, one of the first and largest in China.

Not bad for a man who quit the People’s Liberation Army in the early 1980s to become a freelance photographer and graphic designer. Wang went on to work as a manager at an ad agency in Beijing before heading to the U.S. in 1989 to study advertising design. On his return to China in 1994, he and younger brother Wang Zhonglei (who will be at Cannes) set up their own advertising firm, Hua Yi Bros. The advertising market was ripe for the taking, and Hua Yi picked up some major clients including the Bank of China, for whom they redesigned thousands of branches across the country. Client demand soon inspired the Wang brothers to open a TV commercials department. In 1998, they invested in their first TV series.

Two years later, the brothers moved into feature film production, backing actor Jiang Wen’s second outing as director, “Devils on the Doorstep.”

“I had studied art and advertising, so movies seemed like a good thing to be involved in,” says Wang Zhongjun.

But it was a risky investment. “Devils” was a controversial film about a small village in central China harboring a wounded Japanese soldier during the Sino-Japanese war. It was never released in China, where film authorities prefer uncomplicated messages about Japanese atrocities.

But the film cemented Jiang as China’s leading actor-director, and put Hua Yi Bros. name on the international map when it went on to win the Jury Prize at Cannes.

Over the next six years, Hua Yi has backed some of the biggest hits in Chinese history, including a run of six films from satirical director Feng Xiao Gang, many of them co-produced by Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia. HuaYi also teamed with Columbia for funnyman Stephen Chow’s recent hit “Kung Fu Hustle.”

Young helmer Lu Chuan’s first film, “Missing Gun” (starring Jiang), was a Hua Yi production, as was his next, the ecological tale “Kekexili.” The latter played in competition this year at Sundance, and reaped decent B.O. at home, too. Lu is working on his third for the brothers’ studio.

“We are always looking for new directors,” says Wang. “We are probably going to sign another couple this year to a three-picture deal. It means we can help directors build a career, not just a one-off success or failure.”

Last year marked a turning point for the company, with three of the top five local films of 2004 backed by Hua Yi, including Feng’s “World Without Thieves” and the wildly popular “Kung Fu Hustle.”

Hua Yi has plans to open a record company and a separate TV production wing this year, with the goal of upping output to 400 hours a year.

Fresh capital looks set to arrive soon from Hong Kong-based Tom Group, which announced a plan to buy up 35% of Hua Yi Brothers Film Investment for a reported $10 million late in 2005. The deal is awaiting government approval.

Wang says, “2004 was a good year for China at the box office, with numbers up over 50%. I don’t think the industry can keep increasing at this rate. These things depend partly on luck, on picking the right directors.”

He laughs, “And who knows, maybe our luck will change, too.”