At the 30th anniversary dinner of Universe Entertainment Ltd. in January, founder Daneil Lam expressed heartfelt gratitude toward his colleagues, comrades and industry friends for their support. The low-profile Lam rarely made public appearances, but when he showed up, he made sure that his presence would be meaningful to his audience, regardless who they were.
“I’m very grateful. Without your support, tonight could never happen,” he said. Rounds of applause came from not only his staff but also the Hong Kong industry heavyweights, including Albert Yeung, the boss of Emperor Entertainment Group, director Johnnie To, kung- fu star Sammo Hung and multiple award-winning actor Anthony Wong Chau-sang.
Lam’s thank-you speech might have been succinct, but he meant every word of it.
“Lam is a passionate producer, and the staff at Universe all look up to him,” says Alvin Lam, his brother and general manager of Universe.
“As the leader of a company with 30 successful years, his vision plays the key role. I think he has a good insight about the society and the film market, and that he gets to invest in the right projects that can truly connect with the audience.”
Lam is involved in marketing, corporate strategy, business planning, development and the overall management of the company.
From a humble film and video distributor to one of the game-changers in the Asian film industry, Universe Entertainment Ltd. has witnessed three decades of ups and downs in Hong Kong and Chinese cinema.
Looking ahead, setting the stage for Hong Kong filmmakers in mainland China and overseas markets will be the among the top priorities for the company, which is facing a much more globalized film industry than it did 30 years ago when it was founded.
“The growth of the China market will continue; not only will there be more young local talent emerging and bringing in new ideas, the cooperation between Chinese companies and filmmakers and their counterparts from the rest of the world will be more frequent,” says Alvin Lam, general manager of Universe.
He says that as the world eyes the growth of China’s film industry, exploring co-production opportunities and collaborative distribution plans between China and North America, it could be the next big chance for Hong Kong filmmakers, who can be bridge between China and the rest of the world. “Hong Kong filmmakers shall embrace this opportunity,” he says.
The story of Universe began in 1986 when founder Daneil Lam Shiu-ming established the company as a small-scale film and video distributor offering content in VHS and LaserDisc formats.
“In the 1980s and early ’90s, the Hong Kong film industry flourished with the growth of theatrical and video markets,” says his brother, Alvin Lam.
The staggering demand for entertainment at the time brought good business to Universe, but it also propelled the growth of piracy. Universe then began to explore the mainland Chinese market, and in 1995 it started selling film rights to mainland distributors. The move not only helped the company establish a new distribution network in China, but also broadened the company’s income base. In July 1999, Universe Intl. Financial Holdings Ltd., which owns Universe Entertainment Ltd., listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
It was also the time when Universe began investing in feature productions. The plan was initially to diversify the company’s business, but with the wild success of Stephen Chow’s 2001 action comedy “Shaolin Soccer,” which raked in more than HK$60 million ($7.7 million) at the box office and at that time the highest-grossing film of all time in Hong Kong, the company sealed its status as a key player in Hong Kong and around the region. “Soccer” grossed $42.7 worldwide.
That hit gave a strong boost to projects that came after. Alvin Lam says horror hit “Re-cycle,” directed by the Pang brothers, was a turning point as it brought together commercial with artistic elements when it played in Un Certain Regard at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. “Sparrow,” Johnnie To’s tale on thieves, competed at the Berlin festival in 2008.
Alvin Lam says Universe also explored new filming technology through projects such as martial-arts epic “The Storm Warriors” (2009) and horror pic “The Child’s Eyes” (2010).
“We always strive to push the envelope of movie production in Asia and bring Hong Kong and Chinese films to an international stage,” Lam says. Co-producing with Chinese film companies also made it possible for Universe to work on bigger projects. The company’s latest offering, action drama “Shockwave,” which has a $22 million budget, is an example.
In the mid-2000s, he sensed the need to diversify and began producing TV dramas, including the popular “Kung Fu Soccer” (2004) and “Magic Chef” (2004).
In recent years, Universe has been looking into projects that tell Hong Kong stories while sharing the universal values of humanity. He says “Little Big Master” (2015) was based on a true story about a school headmistress and the remaining five students in a kindergarten located in a remote village. It grossed $6 million, the highest-grossing Hong Kong film of the year.
Despite the box office success and international recognition, Lam says the company had to explore new revenue models as the video market has shrunk.
“The digital market is on the rise. We have been working with major VOD platforms for a few years and we are still exploring new opportunities,” Lam says. “The digital platforms in China take up a major market share, following the theatrical market. There will be more medium-budget films for the VOD market in China in future. The vast size of the China market means that we need to cultivate a new generation of filmmakers and actors who can produce projects that fit in different genres and [different] production scales.”