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China’s Bona Film Group Explores Capital Options

Bona Film Group has a unique relationship with the capital markets. In 2010, it became the first Chinese film company to list its shares on a North American stock exchange. But only a few years later, it delisted, and is now attempting to do a new IPO in China.

But back in December 2011 in New York, Catherine Zeta-Jones was on hand to add some glamour when the Bona team rang the NASDAQ opening bell. The company raised $99 million through the sale of its American Depository Receipts (an ADR is how most foreign companies trade on the U.S. stock exchange) shares which, at $8.50 apiece, were priced fractionally above the range their bankers had indicated — a sign of strong interest.

As part of its share sale roadshow, Bona chair/CEO Yu Dong and several of the company directors used a private plane to fly coast to coast, and many points in between, meeting U.S.-based financial analysts and investors. One irony they noted was that many of the number crunchers they met were themselves of Chinese origin.

One of the reasons that Bona was attracted to the U.S. market was its supposed depth of research and understanding of investment in the media and entertainment sector. While Wall Street may have had the industry knowledge, Bona’s arrival coincided with a wave of growing investor skepticism about the quality of many of the large number of Chinese companies that had listed in the U.S.

One of Bona’s attractions was supposed to be its simple structure as producer and distributor, giving investors a pure play exposure to China’s box office, which was beginning to take off like a rocket. China’s aggregate box office in 2010 was RMB10.2 billion ($1.5 billion) compared with RMB61.0 billion ($8.8 billion) in 2018.

But Bona lacked diversity — a few quarters of losses tinged the story being told to U.S. investors — and the company’s shares went unloved despite the healthy pricing. Meanwhile, other Chinese companies such as DMG/Yinji and China Film Group on mainland exchanges, and Alibaba Pictures and IMAX China in Hong Kong, listed where the boom in Chinese entertainment could more easily be observed and understood. Several with less impressive track records than Bona were at the time accorded the kind of rock star ratings normally associated with tech companies.

In June 2015, Yu announced that he would take Bona off the market, and in by mid-2016 he had extricated the company from NASDAQ, with a valuation of $816 million. In October 2017, when Bona’s China IPO plans were first confirmed, Chinese media reported that the company’s valuation had leaped to $2.4 billion.

The buyout and two private funding rounds, in December 2016, and another in March 2017, relied heavily on borrowing and were financed by Yu personally, as well as by some of Bona’s Chinese showbiz frenemies Wanda, Alibaba and Tencent.

The funding rounds gave Bona three years of financial freedom, and Yu says that they have been the company’s three best ever. But the long wait to return to the stock market has a price. Companies with large debts are unable to list in China. And investors can eye an exit — or at least a more liquid market than that for a private company, and Yu admits that time is of the essence.

“China’s capital markets have changed drastically over the past few years. Regulations have grown more and more strict. The valuation of many companies has collapsed,” says Yu. “The difficulty of IPO-ing in China is much, much harder now than I imagined it would be in 2015.”

Yu says Bona had a choice to reverse into a listed shell company, which is widely frowned upon, or join a system in which government regulators open and close flotations and capital-raising according to their reading of capital market strength and investor sentiment. “We’ve been in the queue since 2017,” says Yu, who has to keep updating the documents supplied to the China Securities Regulatory Commission.

“This is something I did not predict. But I have confidence that we will complete the A-share market IPO,” he says. “I believe that good companies will ultimately be recognized by the market.”

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