Locarno Prize Winner Nansun Shi Talks About Producing, Festivals, Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese Trends

Top producer Nansun Shi to receive
Francois Durand / Getty Images

Having been involved in the early career of John Woo, the 30 year partner of maverick director Tsui Hark and producer of “Infernal Affairs,” Nansun Shi is one of Asia’s top producers. She will be honoured next Monday by Locarno with the Raimondo Rezzonico award, named after the festival’s founder, for best independent film producer.

Variety caught up with her to talk about the skills needed to be a producer, film festivals and the trends within the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese industries today.

Variety: How did you become a movie producer?
Nansun Shi: By accident. I was in TV and it was the done-thing in those days. I was asked to join Cinema City, which needed some management. I ran the company and my nickname was ‘the butler’ as the other guys just went and made movies, while I did everything else.

Variety: Didn’t you want to be the director too?
Shi: No. Not really. I loved movies since a very young age. And during my TV days, I thought sometimes I might have done. But I know myself very well. I could have made a top grade 3 director or a lower-ranking grade 2 director. So why would I want to do that? But from TV I had a skillset which could help really talented directors enhance and improve their work. In those days there were fewer director-producers, but many who were exceptionally talented as directors.

Variety: What makes a good producer?
Shi: A producer’s range of work is very wide. Sometimes it can be done by one person, but sometimes it needs the skillsets of several people. That’s why there are sometimes quite a few producers on a movie.

Working with talent, getting the right script, putting the right people together is the beginning. There are the financial aspects, plus looking after the whole production. Nowadays it is not good enough to make a good movie, you also have to know a lot about marketing and distribution, as well as how to collect the money. All that can be done by one person, or by many. Some people are good at finding the money, which is a necessary art of producing the movie. So is somebody with good taste who spots good projects and then find the position it deserves. If you set out to make an art-house movie that’s what you should achieve, or if you set out to make a commercial movie and make lots of money you should achieve that goal.

Variety: Which of those producers are you?
Shi: I do have good judgement, after many years of experience. I’m not able to write scripts, but I know a good one when I see one. I don’t know how to fix the problems in a script, but I know how to identify them. It is like art-direction: the stylists come and present me things. I know when it is not right. But I do know how to find the person who can make it right.

I’m very good with people. I always first think about what the other person wants. So if I’m talking to an artist I try to think about what he’s done, or what’s lacking, or about something that would make their career take a new turn. That very often helps you convince somebody. So my hit rate is usually higher when negotiating or discussing something.

Also from a very early stage I was involved in distribution, especially with commercial films. So I know the best way to make that film enjoy commercial success. But at the same time I’m always trying new things and trying to learn. I made my first art-house movie last year after 30 years in the business and I’m going to make my first erotic film this year, with Eric Khoo.

Variety: Your name is always attached to “Infernal Affairs” what are the other titles you’d like people to acknowledge you for?
Shi: My earlier films were more creative and energetic. We didn’t know any better, so we’d try anything. “Once Upon A Time In China,” and “Chinese Ghost Story” I had a lot of fun with. And “A Better Tomorrow.” In the past ten years I’ve been making films with very difficult production requirements, 3D and so on, and very much higher production quality.

Variety: Where has Hong Kong Cinema gone in the 30 years you have been involved?
Shi: It has gone through so many stages. In the late 1970s and early 1980s it was very energetic, with lots of new directors. We didn’t always get the pulse of the audience, but we made a lot of interesting new movies. Then there was the 10 year “Golden Era of Hong Kong film” when a lot of our films travelled literally everywhere. They were very good times, which were followed by the 10 years pre-1997, when everything seemed helpless and hopeless. After that the whole China market opened up in 2003.

People of my generation are very blessed. We enjoyed the prosperity of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and 1990s, and then, just when things were not going so well, we got the opportunity to use all our expertise and knowledge in building the film industry in China, and to share in its prosperity.

Yet, in the last 3-4 years, Hong Kong itself has started to have a new lease of life. Quite a lot of young directors have emerged. Many are very talented. Many of my generation feel we should try and give back as much as possible. Everything I have comes from Hong Kong and much of it comes from film. So that means working with younger talent. By one simple act, we can help younger talent.

Variety: Why is it so difficult to read the China market?
Shi: China makes its own rules. Because the numbers are so large and the scale so huge. And yet all this prosperity is only in the last 10 years.

In many countries going from five cars on the road to having 5,000 took five years. In China it took one month. So, instead of copying or emulating another country with a slight variation, they simply created their own driving etiquette. For many years we’d consider Japan where everyone crosses the road in a disciplined fashion at the same time might be a role model. But in China they simply write their own rules. Film is the same.

For several years Hong Kong, which then had a population of 6.8 million people, had an annual box office of HK$800 million. And at the same time China, with its population of 1.3 billion, had a box office of RMB800 million, at a time when the Renminbi was worth less than the HK dollar! And for several years they were always 800 million. Then one year it became RMB920 million and from then on China has had double digit growth, one year even reaching 60%.

Even if you are very close to the market, it is very difficult to predict. Only a year ago, I could not have said that one film would do RMB100 million ($17 million) in a single day. A weekday in July! People are always making predictions about this market, but it is very difficult to be correct.

In the last ten years a lot of HK filmmakers have been very instrumental in helping the structure of the film industry in China, but I think the next ten years will hold something else we cannot predict. Everyone is trying to work with Hollywood, and because they are doing that something will happen.

The Japanese went to Hollywood, the Indians went to Hollywood and the Taiwanese too, they all got screwed, so people all assume that when the Chinese go to Hollywood they’ll get screwed as well. Maybe they will be the only ones who do well, through the sheer hit rate in their home market.

Variety: Many Chinese producers are these days analysing footfall in shopping malls, what goods sell on Alibaba and trends on social media in order to try to read the Chinese consumer market. Does this have any meaning?
Shi: Cinema research and tracking is certainly not the same as in the U.S. And it is good to have some figures to look at, but very often we get a hit that simply was not predicted.

2013 was a very interesting year. Where previously only the so called big name directors delivered the big box office numbers, suddenly there was a whole bunch of new directors making tiny films which did so well.

The other factor of huge change is the arrival of the Internet players into the market. They are more important than the money they bring. Money is abundant everywhere in China. These companies are inevitably going to bring some of their culture. Already they account for 16% of theatrical sales. Now they becoming involved in the content production side and changing the structure of the industry.
For the first ten years (2003-2012) it was the same business, just getting bigger. But last year was a watershed year in many, many ways for the Chinese film industry.

Variety: You’ve been on the juries of many festivals including Cannes and Berlin. Now you are to receive a major festival honor in Locarno. Do festivals still matter?
Shi: Festivals will always have some role in the promotion of film culture. There is still a tag that attaches from winning in Cannes or Venice. There are many films that had they not won a major prize would not have been seen. And directors – like Michael Haneke for me — who would not have reached a wider audience. But these days there are too many festivals. That makes them become more of a marketing platform, rather than the pure function of bringing together good quality films from all over the world in one place.

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