China / Society

Setting the scene for success

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily) Updated: 2013-01-13 10:27

For Enlight Media CEO Wang Changtian it is the best of times, finds Raymond Zhou, who reveals the behind-the-scenes moves that made Lost in Thailand such a runaway hit.

The first week of 2013 has presented Wang Changtian with a new challenge: How to properly conduct himself in public so that he will not be seen as gloating - or indulging in false modesty, for that matter.Setting the scene for success

Wang, CEO and president of Enlight Media, is being bombarded with congratulations and interview requests. A slapstick comedy released on Dec 12, by Enlight Pictures, the company's film unit, is breaking all kinds of box-office records.

By New Year's Day, the film had crossed the 1 billion yuan ($160 million) mark, beating Titanic 3D to become the No 1 movie of the year in a country where total box-office tallies are doubling every few years. And the company reveals that on Jan 12, one month after its release, the box office reached 1.2 billion yuan.

What makes the success so much sweeter is the moderate budget of Lost in Thailand, which was made for just 30 million yuan.

It does not have expensive stars or a big-name director. The trio of actors is well known, but not A-listers, and Xu Zheng, one of the actors, is a novice director.

But Wang does not agree that it is a dark horse film. "We worked hard on it," he comments.

More importantly, the movie follows strictly the formula of Hollywood genre comedy.

One of Wang's lieutenants was sent to a training camp given by Robert McKee, a writing instructor with many Oscar winners among his students. He returned to compare notes, surprisingly finding that what he learned and what Xu had done overlapped a great deal.

"It was like McKee had secretly participated in Xu's brainstorming sessions," Wang says.

"Purely commercially driven genre pictures should be the mainstay of the market," concludes Wang, who saw the stock price of his company go from 21 yuan on Dec 12, the day of the sleeper hit's debut, to 35 yuan on the final day of 2012.

However, the winning formula of genre pictures fails to explain many of the fiascos Enlight has produced in the past six years since it entered film production. There is a putdown in the industry that Enlight turns out only bombs.

"Every studio has its share of duds, but others have hits that make people forget about the bombs. We did not have a 'representative work' that we could proudly call our own."

That is, until now.

Wang goes on to explain that, financially, Enlight Pictures has been able to at least break even or make a small profit during its six years of operation.

"The projects for which we're the main investor all made money. It's those in which we were minority equity holders that lost money," he adds.

Wang does not have an interest in art-house fare. He stumbled onto a 6 million yuan movie that turned out to be Beijing Blues. It won the Golden Horse Award but failed to earn back its investment. "It was an anomaly. We'll focus on genre projects only."

Many of Enlight's projects, including 2012's The Four and The Assassins, were created by Hong Kong filmmakers, with Hong Kong directors or superstars in the cast. Chasing Hong Kong talent was Enlight's strategy from the beginning.

"Hong Kong film people have two advantages," claims Zhang Zhao, who was Enlight Pictures' president until he jumped to head Le Vision instead. "One is their professionalism, and the other is their familiarity with genre formula."

That distinguishes them from most mainland talents, who sees themselves as artists first, and against genre conventions.

As Hong Kong films have been regarded as domestic productions since 2003, much of its industry has been integrated with the mainland and resources have been pooled.

Still, a Hong Kong-film people-led project often has a distinct flavor that, on the upside, is rarely self-indulgent but, on the downside, can be formulaic.

The runaway success of Lost in Thailand has provided Wang with an epiphany: Mainland talents, when they dig into the secrets of genre movies, can outshine their Hong Kong peers because they more intuitively understand what local audiences want - and this is especially true of comedies.

"We've got to develop local directors if we want to grow stronger," Wang says.

Another thing China's film industry lacks is franchise movies that have sequels and branding.

Wang intends to develop Lost in Thailand into a series for Xu. It does not hurt that Wang offered the greenhorn director 10 percent of the profits, which represents something like 40 million yuan.

As for Wang Baoqiang and Huang Bo, who do not contractually share the windfall, Wang Changtian says he'll develop projects for both of them. "They should have their own brands of movies."

Asked about the risks of moviemaking, Wang is clear: "Nobody can guarantee your next project is going to be a hit."

The worst-case scenario for Lost in Thailand, when it first arrived on his desk, was an estimated return of 70-80 million yuan, which would justify the 30 million yuan budget. (Chinese producers and distributors get a share of 43 percent of the box-office gross.)

About the high end of the estimate, Wang says that "for the first 400 million yuan in box-office takings we credit our hard work, but beyond that it is not in our hands to control".

Many have called the success of the film simply "good luck". They say the film was released at a time of underperforming releases in the same slot, was a counterweight to the tragedies that preceded it, and there was an unusual pent-up demand for light fare.

"Ours is a company with intimate knowledge of the entertainment scene, and we have a corporate culture that facilitates youthful communication.

"So, the resources behind this movie induce its connection with the young, mass audience," says Wang, who has read up on the history of Hollywood and detects a parallel between his company and Lions Gate Entertainment, the California company that made The Hunger Games, among others.

While movie theater audiences are roaring with laughter, Wang is keeping his head down and his mouth shut.

"On some occasions, others will be embarrassed if you do not hide your true feeling; but you yourself will be embarrassed if you are frank about it. That's when I wish my mouth was not functioning."


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