Media Asia Moves Into the Mainland

Hong Kong-based media giant diversifies and sets sights on Chinese market

Media Asia Drug War

These days, Media Asia is a pillar of the Hong Kong film industry establishment. It can boast a production pipeline connected to a large talent pool, enviable connections in mainland China, a profile in Hollywood and even a stock market listing. But it was not always so.

The company was founded 20 years ago when seven mid-ranking executives from Star Television, then News Corp.’s Hong Kong-based, pan-Asian TV unit, were fired en masse.

Known collectively as the “Seven Samurai,” the execs took with them a contract to manage Star’s massive film library, which includes all six Bruce Lee movies, as well as many early Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh titles. And, reflecting the film catalog origins, the company’s distinctive, but somewhat retro “MA” logo initially stood for Media Assets.

Coming at the end of the “Golden Era” of Hong Kong cinema and only a few years before the end of Hong Kong as a British colony, the early 1990s were uncertain times for Hong Kong cinema. The new MA soon added another contract to produce content for one of Star’s movie channels. Available budgets were more befitting of TV movies than feature films and the company did not complete the five-year, seven pictures per year deal.

The musical comedy “I Have a Date With Spring,” directed by Clifton Ko, was an early critical, and, more importantly, commercial success that kept the company going.

By 1998 the company had scaled up and found its footing as a producer of commercial genre fare including “Beast Cops” (1998), “Gen-X Cops” (1999), “Purple Storm” (1999) and “2000 AD” (2000) and it even had arthouse director Ann Hui scare Hong Kong with ghost story “Visible Secret” (2001). International co-productions included “Gen-Y Cops” (with the U.S.’ Regent Entertainment) and 1999’s “Tempting Heart” (with Japan’s Toho Towa).

The company was initially managed by Nick James, later by Thomas Chung, both from the initial founders’ group. And, after a period of partial ownership by local conglomerate UA, MA was taken over by eSun, an investment group controlled by Hong Kong property and textiles tycoon Peter Lam.

To the surprise of some, Lam did not treat the company as a hobby, but instead became significantly involved in its day-to-day management, as well as building up the talent management business under the eSun group.

The Lam era brought with it several new directions: a misstep such as its investment in “The Touch,” produced by the then-independent Chung; an experiment with steamy thriller “Naked Weapon”; and in 2002, “Infernal Affairs.” The thriller, which pitches a longtime undercover cop against a triad gangster who has infiltrated the police, has shaped Media Asia and the Hong Kong film industry ever since.

It helped define the Hong Kong brand of taught, superbly-crafted crime thrillers. And it gave career spins to Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Anthony Wong and Edison Chen, as well as to the trio of filmmakers Andrew Lau and Alan Mak as co-directors, to Mak and Felix Chong as screenwriters — and to producer Nansun Shi. Inevitably, it was quickly spun into two sequels — which still leave critics arguing which was the best — and was licensed for remake by Martin Scorsese as 2006 Oscar winner “The Departed.”

The Lam era also coincided with the liberalization of the mainland Chinese film industry and MA was soon investing in and distributing several Chinese pictures. Award-winning arthouse title “Zhou Yu’s Train” was one of its first. It followed with a trio of Feng Xiaogang pictures: “A World Without Thieves,” “The Banquet” and “Assembly.” It also produced H.K. director Peter Chan’s mainland period martial arts effort “The Warlords” in 2007. More recently it was the biggest single investor in Johnnie To’s mainland-set crimer “Drug War” and Peter Chan’s mainland hit “American Dreams in China.”

With the last of the seven founders, the thoughtful, screenwriter-producer John Chong, departing in 2012, MA is wholly Lam’s baby.

He has given it professional management, returned Media Asia to the Hong Kong stock market (the company was listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange between 2004 and 2007) and allied the company with an impressive array of mainland Chinese investors.

These include massive Internet groups Tencent (owner of WeChat), Sina (owner of messaging service Sina Weibo) and Yunfeng, the investment fund that is operated on behalf of billionaire Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

Jeffrey Soong, who joined as CEO early last year from Taiwan’s Fubon finance and media investment group, defines today’s MA as “a Chinese-language content producer,” and as a diversified entertainment group that can apply Hong Kong experience and craft to the still developing Chinese industry.

According to Soong’s analysis, the company’s strengths are its experience, balance and transparency, and its biggest weakness that it is “not in China as much as we would wish.”

A cluster of recent developments point to the further ramping up of activities in China and Asia by Lam and MA. These include a $10 million rights issue on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange; the hiring of veteran multi-hyphenate Gordon Chan as head of the film division on a promise to beef up Media Asia’s production in Asia; and eSun’s acquisition of Hong Kong’s Intercontinental Group, which operates one of Hong Kong’s leading cinema chains and is also H.K. and Macau sub-distributor for Paramount.