Bona CEO talks co-prods, piracy

Yu Dong says 'it's a pretty crazy time' in China now

Chinese regulators’ warnings for Hollywood about trying to game the government’s co-productions system should be taken seriously — and as a result, future collaborations will have more Chinese input in a market that’s privatizing almost as fast as it’s growing, Bona Film Group CEO Yu Dong said in a wide-ranging interview on the eve of AFM. Yu also suggested that established filmmaking companies have an advantage over the hundreds of startups that are coming into the market, and he believes Bona’s partnership with Fox will be a model for co-production and distribution arrangements that ushers in a new era of collaboration. The Beijing-based Yu, who comes to Los Angeles regularly and has already picked up Chinese distribution rights to Summit Entertainment’s “Red 2” and Emmet/Furla Films’ thriller “Broken City” at the market, also touched on piracy, marketing and the importance of selecting the right partner.

The message from Chinese regulators in August was stern: Zhang Peiming, deputy bureau chief of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, said then that only “true” co-productions would be granted rights and privileges going forward. What did you take away from those comments?

There are two sides to his statement. On the one hand, some recently released so-called “co-productions” were not co-productions in any real sense. The stories were not developed with Chinese input, and maybe there were some Chinese faces and locations in the film … this is why they are not completely supported by the government. On the other, the government wants very much to foster true collaborations creatively and financially. At Bona we believe in working together with our partners from the very beginning.

So what can we expect “true” co-productions to bring us in the near future?

Going forward, U.S.-China co-productions will expand internationally, and we’re going to see a lot more big Hollywood movies with Chinese stories and actors. We believe our partnership with Fox is going to be key to this revolution.

As a former head of domestic distribution at China Film Group and now CEO of Bona, you have been instrumental in kicking off a movement toward privatization of the Chinese film industry. Where do you see it going?

Box office in China is going to surpass the U.S., and by the time that happens, Chinese films in the market will be dominated by movies made by private companies, rather than by state-supported projects. Already several new companies have gone public, and looking at these companies you can see that it’s already moving quickly in that direction.

U.S. studios and filmmakers have expressed frustration with their attempts to get projects going in China, and are sometimes unhappy with the results. What’s the reason for that?

The one thing we don’t lack in China is money for filmmaking. It’s such a sexy industry right now, and there are many investors coming in who are new to the market. As a result, many of these movies are not very well made; the production quality is not good. This is why big, professional companies like Bona will come out on top, because we already have the experience and connections to make quality movies in China.

So what’s your advice for U.S. filmmakers looking at partnerships?

When looking for a Chinese partner, the company’s track record is extremely important. Bona has a 12-year history of making quality films that have done very well, and past performance is a very good indicator. There are many new companies, but it requires a lot of time and development to get to the point where you can be sure what you’re getting.

Is piracy as much of a concern for filmmakers in China — where Internet movie downloads are largely free and ad-supported — as it is for those in the U.S.?

Piracy in China now is actually pretty well-controlled. You don’t see young people buying DVDs anymore, in part because those discs are not as available as they once were, but also because those young people are always online; they’re all on iPads and portable devices. DVD players are already considered outdated in China. If you control the biggest websites, you can monitor and protect movies very well. Piracy of Hollywood blockbusters is still a problem, but we believe that’s because in many cases, they are not using good distributors.

What’s the driving force behind the exhibition boom in China, and how long can this growth be sustained?

The Chinese film market is going to grow at this crazy pace for at least another 10 years. Urbanization has everything to do with this, and there are still many second- and third-tier cities that are modernizing. They are getting their first shopping malls, and people are just discovering fun new ways to spend their money for the first time. It’s a pretty crazy time.

Theatrical marketing in the U.S. is heavily geared toward expensive television campaigns, though it’s slowly shifting toward digital and social. What the preferred marketing method in China?

There are so many TV stations in China that it can be hard to justify spending money on it because you don’t know where it goes. It’s not a good investment. What does work is theatrical trailers in movie theaters and outdoor, particularly in public transportation. There are also mini video screens, such as you’ll see in office building elevators.