While the film world turns to Toronto and Venice, the Beverly Hills-based financier sets big plans for the future. Starlight earned kudos for backing the 2017 Chadwick Boseman vehicle “Marshall” and hit the big time with 2018 hit “Crazy Rich Asians.” The headlines were less kind regarding “Midway,” another film it backed last year.
The umbrella plan is ambitious — it calls for the production of up to 47 films in the next three years through the attachment of big-name directors, including Sam Raimi, James Wan, F. Gary Gray and Jon Chu — but timing unfortunately does matter.
That’s because Starlight is subject to the tug of stock market investors. It listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, after a 2017 reverse takeover of a small firm that combined gaming and chemicals, and which had changed its name four times in seven years.
Starlight has since raised finance for production investment by expanding its balance sheet. It has done that through a mix of convertible bond issues and bank borrowings.
So far, the plan seems to be working. In August, the listed company issued a small, but positive, profit alert for the six months to June. And Luo says that its strategic shareholders are being patient in this coronavirus-infected year. Indeed, Starlight gained one more major investor, Sang Kangqiao, who in February bought 19% of the company, just as the coronavirus was halting Chinese film industry, but before its devastating impact on the wider, global movie biz could have been known.
Even in March, the coming shutdown was not a certainty, and Starlight said that it could get six movies into production in 2020.
Among those now being rethought are: “Umma,” directed by Iris K. Shim, and produced by Raimi, which should have shot in Canada, but now will likely start pre-production this month in Los Angeles; and Wan’s “Malignant,” which had been set to release on Aug. 14, with Warner’s New Line handling globally, excluding China, and Starlight handling China rights. In post-production, it is now awaiting a new release date.
One project got moved up. Luo and veteran Hollywood producer Donna Gigliotti are set as producers of “Wuhan! Wuhan!,” which chronicles a day-and-a-half in the life of the Chinese city where the earliest proven cases of COVID-19 were found. Helmed by two award-winning directors, Gong Cheng and Yung Chang, the film has the double virtue of being timely and available at a time when other projects have stalled, and also gives the company a useful political credit in China.
For all of the Chinese funding, Luo’s narrative is very in tune with Hollywood. He talks about how stalled production “has given us time to fast-track some of our development projects.” He talks about the need to diversify and develop the company in response to industry-transforming actions such as the alliance between AMC and Universal Pictures, which is expected to shorten exclusive theatrical windows. “We need to better combine offline and online,” says Luo. “And we need to learn how to more fully exploit our content, more rapidly.”
Luo talks about female empowerment and diversity. Gigliotti is developing an Asian female action film for Starlight. And in August, Starlight unveiled Stars Collective, a $100 million film and talent development pool supporting aspiring female, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) filmmakers. Headed by Starlight’s creative executive Jennifer Zhang Juefang, Stars Collective will support 30-50 emerging filmmakers.
Luo does not see it simply as in tune with the times. “We hope that the young stars’ influence will help us generate more thought-provoking, good-looking and innovative ideas,” he says.