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Bona Film Seeks Status as Chinese Major Ahead of IPO (EXCLUSIVE)

Bona Film Group is building on its role as one of China’s most successful distributors and is looking to expand its business both in Hollywood and in China, prior to a new IPO in 2018.

The company this week signed a deal to launch a $20 million film investment fund with Imax China, the Hong Kong stock market-listed offshoot of Imax. The pair will invest in Chinese movies and conversions of Chinese titles for release on the country’s huge number of giant screens. Imax China, which has a similar fund with China Media Capital, currently has some 320 screens in commercial operation, with an order book for nearly 300 more. The fund would likely give Bona’s Imax screens priority access to some of the titles.

Bona is also expanding the co-financing arrangement it has through The Seelig Group in the current slate of Twentieth Century Fox. That has already seen Bona invest $235 million in six movies including “The Martian” and “Independence Day: Resurgence.” Bona chairman and founder Yu Dong told Variety that Bona is now committed to seven movies and that he intends to continue co-financing other titles in the Fox lineup on a picture-by-picture basis.

In a separate deal, Bona is also an investor-producer in the upcoming Ang Lee title “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.” The company has converted two of its theaters — one each in Beijing and Shanghai — to be part of the tiny network of just five cinemas worldwide that will present the movie in the full 120 frames per second, 4K, 3D version that Lee ambitiously conceived.

The other screens are in New York, Los Angeles, and Lee’s native Taiwan. The film is set for release in China, Taiwan, and North America on Nov. 11.

Bona, currently riding high at the box office with fact-based action film “Operation Mekong,” has greenlighted a clutch of top projects for 2017-18. They include “Red Sea Operation,” a new actioner from “Mekong” director Dante Lam that will see the Chinese army in action in Yemen; an untitled film directed by Han Han, the blogger and race-car driver who delivered $100 million Bona hit “The Continent” in 2014; and “The Birth of an Army.” The big-budget, patriotic movie will be made style of all-star hits “Beginning of the Great Revival,” and “The Founding of a Republic.” The new picture will be produced by “Republic” and “Revival” producer Huang Jianxin and directed by Hong Kong’s Andrew Lau Wai-keung (“Infernal Affairs,” “Revenge of the Green Dragons”.)

A powerhouse slate and distribution success would nicely tee up the company for a return to the stock market. Bona was previously listed on the NASDAQ, but was taken private with finance from Yu, Alibaba, Tencent, and Studio 8 financier Fosun Intl.

With entertainment plays attracting huge investment flows in China, relisting on a Chinese exchange would be expected to deliver a vastly higher rating than the company enjoyed in the U.S. Yu says that the company wants to take the conventional IPO route, rather than financial engineering through a reverse into a shell vehicle, and that Bona is now queueing for a flotation, likely in 2018.

Meantime, Yu says that he is enjoying the support of his two major backers, internet giants Alibaba and Tencent. “They are very far from passive investors,” he said. “They are providing active support in marketing and distribution. What they are not doing is picking the movies we should make.”

Yu, who has previously voiced concern that China’s internet majors could dominate the movie industry, now says that there has been a subtle, but important lesson learned from this year’s box office slowdown.

“The internet companies are coming to realize that storytelling and an emphasis on quality and execution has a bigger impact and lasts longer than internet-originated concepts. That experience is what (Alibaba and Tencent) are getting from Bona,” Yu said. In “From Vegas to Macau III” and “Mekong,” Bona this year has produced two of the top seven films this year in China.

“When we come back to the stock market we want to be viewed as one of China’s majors in the same way as people talk about the Hollywood majors,” Yu said.

To that end, Yu is now hatching further plans to vertically integrate upstream into production services, and downstream into theme parks. The company is planning to build sound stages and post-production facilities at Huairou, northwest of Beijing, in the same district as the studios operated by China Film group and where the Beijing Film Academy also plans to build a production base.

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