Jeong Tae-sung cannot be credited with inventing Korean major CJ Entertainment’s initiative to expand film activities into China — that has been under way for six years — but the 49-year-old exec is making sure the Korean conglom’s initiatives take root on the mainland.
Jeong arrived at the CJ Entertainment film unit in early 2012, after the company had suffered a relatively disappointing 2011, and within months was made its head.
Fluent in Chinese, Japanese and English, Jeong has an extensive knowledge of the Asian indie film scene as a former head of the Busan festival’s project market. He also knows the commercial market, having been CEO at film giant Showbox/Mediaplex.
But at CJ, his mandate has been to grow the company’s international operations and relationships.
The corporate logic is relatively simple. Korea is a small and highly developed country with an aging population. While its home market is relatively saturated, it has attractive cultural products that can be exported throughout Asia. Its fast-developing neighbor across the Yellow Sea, China, which in entertainment craves Korean cool and quality, represents the perfect opportunity.
The film-related outreach program launched some six years ago with a CJ-organized mini-festival held in one of the company’s Seoul multiplexes. Top China Film Bureau executives were in attendance, and have returned each year as the event has expanded. In June, when much of the Chinese film industry was at the Shanghai festival, Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung were in Seoul promoting “The Grandmaster” at CJ’s Chinese Film Festival.
Such strong and high-level relationships have helped the company’s exhib component, CJ CGV, move into China as a film exhibitor, and allowed CJ Entertainment to invest in and produce films in China. The most successful collaboration was romance-drama “The Wedding Invitation,” which was directed by Korea’s Oh Ki-hwan and scored $30.6 million at the Chinese B.O.
“The strategy is mostly to develop our own IP,” Jeong says. “That could be an original script or a remake of a Korean film or a project that was developed as a Korean film but that we produce as a Chinese film if we think it is more appropriate for the market. The important thing is it musn’t just look like a Chinese film: We want to produce real Chinese films.”
While CJ previously learned the ropes in China as a minority investor on the Chinese remake of “What Women Want” and on “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,” the company was investor and developer, and participated in the marketing, on “Wedding Invitation. (Direct involvement in distribution remains closed to foreigners in China.)
For film production in China, CJ can count on Century Media Corp. as a partner, and C2M and Huace as junior financial partners.
“We are developing around eight to 10 projects, and hope to make three pictures next year (after one this year),” Jeong says. “Next year could see us working in different genres — drama, comedy, sci-fi and horror.”
One project that’s moving forward quickly is the $25 million sci-fi fantasy “The Fist,” which will be co-produced alongside state-owned China Film Group and privately owned Pegasus & Taihe Entertainment, and released simultaneously in China and Korea.
“We don’t bring a penny back to Korea,” Jeong says, “because we have a lot more business planned for the future (in China).”