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From Its Roots in VHS, Mei Ah Rides the Digital Wave

As the old saying goes, timing is everything. Such could be true for Hong Kong’s Mei Ah Entertainment Group. Founded in 1984, the company went from distributing video tapes and laser discs during the golden era of Hong Kong’s film industry to operating an ecosystem of the entertainment industry riding on China’s rise to the world’s second-largest economy. And as the world becomes a global village during the digital age, this 35-year-old company has even bigger plans.

“It is true that in the long run we hope to establish a global presence,” says Jason Li, executive director of Mei Ah Entertainment.

One of the latest Mei Ah projects has given the company’s ambition away. Joining Chinese star Ma Li, China’s newest box office darling, in upcoming action comedy “Twinblades” is Beth Behrs (“2 Broke Girls”). Lauren Shuler Donner will come on board as producer, making this her first venture in Chinese film industry.

“We have this goal to go global, but we do not want to put too much pressure on ourselves for the time being,” Li says, adding that the company won’t arbitrarily add elements to boost international appeal. “We want to pace ourselves and wait for the right projects and scripts to come along.”

But such a seemingly small step is one significant indicator of Mei Ah’s future direction under the leadership of the second generation. Li’s father, Li Kuo-hsing, founded the company in 1984. It has grown exponentially since then. Now Li senior serves as the chairman of the company, which is listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, and Jason, his eldest son, oversees Mei Ah’s business expansion in mainland China as well as diversifying the company’s portfolio to encompass everything from talent management to content production and distribution.

Jason Li agrees that timing has been on Mei Ah’s side: “When my father founded the company, Hong Kong’s film industry was at its peak. And then when we started doing business in mainland China, the country’s economy grew tremendously.”

During the heyday of Hong Kong’s film production in the 1980s and early ’90s, its industry produced nearly 300 films per year. Titles that are now considered classics of Hong Kong cinema such as comedy-drama “God of Gamblers” (1989), starring Chow Yun-fat, and “Fight Back to School” (1991), starring Stephen Chow as an undercover cop posing as a high school student, were distributed by Mei Ah.

Staying ahead of time was even more important. In less than a decade before Hong Kong was handed over to China from the U.K. in 1997, Mei Ah’s founder Li saw the opportunity coming. In addition to distributing local box office hits such as Stephen Chow’s “Fist of Fury 1991,” he also tried bringing mainland films to Hong Kong, including “Zhou Enlai” (1991), a biopic of the late Chinese premier.

He set up a shingle in Guangzhou as the country’s first joint venture with a company outside of the mainland specializing in audio-visual products. And he distributed mainland Chinese TV series such as historic costume drama “Three Kingdoms” (1994) and “Yong Zheng Dynasty” (1999) in Hong Kong and overseas. Those became major hits among the Chinese-speaking communities around the world.

Li senior has explained that the decision to distribute mainland Chinese films and TV dramas was more than just a business decision. “I come from mainland China. I have a deep emotional connection with the motherland and traditions. I hope that through my work I can help connect people in Hong Kong and Chinese people abroad through culture,” the Fujian-born Li told Guangzhou Daily in March. He said his dream was to become the “Warner Bros. of China.”

“We had our opportunities thanks to the market trends, but we had risks too,” Jason Li says. “In the mid-1990s, Hong Kong’s film market began to decline; box office dropped and sales fell. At the same time, China’s market had not yet taken off. During that vacant period, it was a bit of a struggle for us.”

That struggle lasted for roughly a decade. But the company already had a strong foundation — distributing and producing many box office hits throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the company has one of the most distinguished libraries of Hong Kong cinema. Thus despite the fall of box office at cinemas, home entertainment was still in demand. It was then that Mei Ah developed Mei Ah Movie Channel. By 2009, the company was already operating two movie channels and one TV drama channel available in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan. During that year, the company formed a partnership with HBO, which Mei Ah’s founder called a “milestone” for the company as its fast-growing TV business was made available across the Asia Pacific region thanks to HBO’s network.

Jason Li joined the company in 2008 and witnessed these changes. “We went through IP rights restructuring. And because of our library, the movie channel was a success.”
And the movie channel has since become a permanent fixture of many Chinese-speaking households across the region.

During the early part of the 2000s, the company also expanded to investing in big-budget film projects, co-producing with mainland China. Two-part epic war film “Red Cliff” (2008, 2009), directed by John Woo, is among the best examples. With a stellar cast of Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Takeshi Kanashiro and a budget of $80 million, the project was said to be the most expensive Chinese-language film project at the time. The film was an international success. Shortly afterwards, “Echoes of the Rainbow” (2010) won the Generation Kplus Crystal Bear at the Berlin festival.

The company took an interest not only in established filmmakers, but also emerging talents. Crime thriller “Port of Call” (2015) was helmed by nascent Hong Kong filmmaker Philip Yung. Based on a true murder case, it won seven awards at the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards, including for Yung’s screenplay, leads Aaron Kwok and Jessie Li, plus DP Christopher Doyle.

Yung will helm Mei Ah’s next big project, “Theory of Ambitions.” Starring Leung Chiu-wai and Kwok, the crime-thriller is set in 1970s Hong Kong, when the Independent Commission Against Corruption was established. The film is in post-production.

Another project is “Guilt by Design,” starring Nick Cheung. Based on a script by young Hong Kong trio Lai Siu Kwan, Sze Pak Lam and Yongtai Liu, the trio will also be making their directorial debut with this suspense thriller. The film centers around a courtroom where one of the jurors, a renowned hypnotist whose daughter has been kidnapped, is asked to influence other jury members. The film is co-produced with Perfect Village Entertainment.

Mei Ah will also expand its cinema operation across mainland China. The group pledges to build a network of over 500 screens with 50,000 seats across the country. In 2015, the group began staging live events such as concerts and theater shows, and having these outlets will help ensure that there are enough venues to host their events, Jason Li says.

“Live events have great business potential. They can be very lucrative,” he says. “The return can be much faster compared to film projects, especially for long-running shows. They can help sustain a healthy cash flow for the company. And since it is also a form of entertainment, it is something that we would like to develop in future.”

The group’s ambition in talent management focuses on those before and behind the camera. There will be workshops and projects to train producers and directors.

“When we develop new projects, we also consider whether these projects can be expanded to games or other derivative products. In the world of entertainment, every form, every medium, is interconnected,” Jason Li says.

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