China’s Bona Film Group Strengthens Hollywood Connection

The pre-title credits proclaiming Bona Film Group’s Yu Dong and Jeffrey Chan as executive producers of Quentin Tarantino’s “One Upon a Time … in Hollywood” leave no doubt that the Chinese company is a significant piece of the ongoing — and sometimes uneasy — relationship between the U.S. and Chinese film industries.

More than that, Bona principal Yu Dong likes to boast that his is the only Chinese company to have gone to Hollywood and not lost money.

From 2012 to 2016, Chinese giants such as Wanda, Alibaba and Tencent — among a few others — were expected to swoop in and buy up Hollywood studios or production companies. Bona was never on that list — its strategy has been more opportunistic, though no less daring.

Arguably Bona’s biggest Hollywood moment was its 2015 slate financing deal with Chip Seelig’s TSG to bankroll a selection of 20th Century Fox movies. Involving a $235 million minimum investment, it was one of the most expensive funding commitments from China into Hollywood, and followed in the wake of HunanTV’s pact with Lionsgate and Perfect World’s deal with Universal Pictures.

Titles were selected with a view to their potential performance in China, and Bona took a 20% share of the equity. Such films as “The Martian” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “The Greatest Showman,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” and “Alien: Covenant” were part of the pact.

Bona’s relationship with Chinese investment group Fosun Intl. gave the company an early finance and distribution position in Ang Lee’s experimental “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”

The high-frame-rate feature flopped badly in the U.S. box office, but Bona grossed $23 million of its worldwide B.O. total from China.

Since then, Bona has cherry-picked titles including Roland Emmerich’s “Midway,” from AGC Studios, and James Gray’s “Ad Astra” from New Regency. A blossoming relationship with Sony Pictures saw Bona invest in “A Dog’s Way Home” and “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.”

Although Chinese regulators have halted corporate investments in Hollywood, and slowed currency transfers by Chinese firms, Bona has remained unaffected by these changes, primarily because of its experience on the NASDAQ stock market board in the U.S. Bona managed to keep significant reserves of capital outside China, which have allowed it to keep investing. “What’s really ironic [considering the pain of the NASDAQ experience] is that these U.S. reserves have helped Bona to advance its international agenda,” says Yu.

“From day one, I’ve never thought of Bona as a purely mainland-focused company. As China grows, the U.S. and China markets will definitely have much broader cooperation and competition. We are interested in the top talents. The easiest way to cooperate is by participating in the projects of the Big Six studios, via investment and our role in helping these films achieve a good box office result in China.

“We hope that in the future, China and Hollywood will be able to do true co-productions. These co-productions will be in the Chinese language for the Chinese films and English for Hollywood’s companies.”

A precursor of that may be Sony Pictures investment in and global distribution (except China) of Bona’s Chinese-language firefighting actioner “The Bravest.” The picture will be released on Aug. 1 in China.

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