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China’s ‘Midway’ Backer Starlight Culture Is on a Mission to Improve the Lot of Indies and Women

While most of the action onscreen in “Midway” involves Americans and Japanese, the money behind the movie is Chinese. Starlight Entertainment, which together with another Chinese firm Ruyi Films, put up the entirety of the equity finance for the $98 million budget, sees itself as an ally of the independent movie scene.

The Hong Kong stock market-listed firm first came to attention when it struck a deal with “Aquaman” director James Wan. And it earned kudos for its investing smarts last year when it emerged as a backer of “Crazy Rich Asians.” This year it was a backer of Sierra/Affinity’s “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” a movie that had a production cost of some $25 million, was released by Lionsgate in the U.S., and grossed $96 million in worldwide theatrical.

The company is headed by Peter Luo, who has indulged his passion for filmmaking by pushing the company through a share listing, and substantial fund-raising rounds.

He says that “CRA” and “Scary Stories” are examples of investing opportunities that come with having money in the bank. Most of Starlight’s efforts, and upwards of 70% of its financial firepower, is instead directed to the talent with which it has signed first-look and development deals, and include different arrangements with directors including Roland Emmerich, F. Gary Gray and “CRA” director Jon M Chu. Recently it added a deal with War Party Films, the entity operated by director Joe Carnahan (“Boss Level”) and action star Frank Grillo (“Captain America” and China’s “Wolf Warrior 2”), through another company, Above The CLouds, backed by China’s Erdong Pictures.

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“We started with James Wan, and have 10 such relationships. We are now expanding into ones with producer-actors (such as Sylvester Stallone), and from auteur films into genre films,” Luo told Variety. “We sometimes think of ourselves like a child with a passion for content. We want to grow up alongside our talent and to be the company that helps top directors make their passion projects. We believe every director is an auteur.

“Most of the time we seek to be the 100% equity financiers of those projects that we greenlight,” continued Luo. “That does not mean we are in competition with the major studios. We can be equity financiers while still working with the studios for domestic or global distribution. We still need amazing sales agents and top distributors in China — and to harness all the opportunities for a project.”

Ownership of the rights in the key China market, Luo said, will also be determined on a project-by-project basis.

Midway” looks set to open on top of the North American box office this weekend, but in Luo’s native China, where the picture got a day-and-date release through Bona Film Group, it has struggled to a weak $11.1 million in two days and opened in a disappointing second place.

Luo preaches the gospel of patience on the development front, saying that the company is willing to take time to get scripts right. The company is willing to pay overhead and development costs for its retained talent, with the eventual aim of becoming a financier when the successful projects make it into production.

“Looking forward to the next five years, we want to build up a collection of great movies. We also want to change the concept of an independent movie. We believe that tentpoles can also be independently made, that independent films should become more sophisticated, use pre-sales and completion bonds and work alongside the studios. The industry is bombarded by 200 superhero films per year that take more that 50% of the market, while another 700 films take less than 40%.

“Third, we also want to promote women; women directors and women producers. The world needs to hear their perspective, which is more touching and more elegant (than men’s). With the exception of myself, almost all our employees are women,” said Luo. “Upcoming we have a new Sam Raimi-produced film, to be directed by a woman. We are also developing three others with women directors from Ukraine, Mexico and the U.S.”

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