This interview was conducted in 2020 in the run-up to our Shanghai subforum with LSE China Development Forum.
Today’s guest: Wang Zhonglei
- Co-founder, Vice-Chair, and CEO of Huayi Brother Media Corp.
- Wang was born in 1970 in Beijing and graduated from Beijing Youth Politics College; in 1994 he co-founded Huayi Brothers with brother Wang Zhongjun, and started managing Huayi’s film and television business in 1998.
- Under Wang’s leadership, Huayi Brothers produced more than 100 excellent film and television programmes beloved by viewers, with the box office totals of its main production works exceeding 20 billion yuan.
- Huayi Brothers productions regularly top Chinese-language box office charts and have been recognized as the premier brand for Chinese-language cinema; Wang Zhonglei has become the ‘golden producer’ of Chinese films within the industry.
- Wang was the main producer for The Eight Hundred, and as of September 2020 its box office total has grown past 2 billion yuan.
Q1: As one of the first films to return to theatres after the pandemic, The Eight Hundred was an enormous success at the box office and exceeded 2 billion yuan by August 31st. Looking back, choosing this time slot for the film must have come with lots of uncertainty; could you share with us how you came to this decision?
Wang: There was definitely uncertainty, since before The Eight Hundred started screening on August 14th, daily box office totals for all films in China was only around 10 million yuan. In addition, at the time theatres still had a 30% seating limit. The Eight Hundred was a very significant artistic and financial endeavour, so you can imagine the kind of pressure that we were under as producers of the film. However, at a time when theatres and the film industry was just returning to work, the market needed an exceptional and inspiring piece of work to bring audiences that haven’t sat down in theatres for half a year back in front of the silver screen. It’s important that a film like this reignites viewers’ passion for the cinema, so this is deeply meaningful for the entire industry. I thought a premier company like Huayi Brothers should lead by example and shoulder this responsibility, so we reached out to the China Film Administration (CFA). The CFA’s leadership was very supportive of our proposal, and looking back it was certainly a courageous decision. The audience approval and box office success that The Eight Hundred received, in addition to the film industry’s rapid recovery, show that the risk we took was very worth it.
Q2: The pandemic was a unique background for this film; in your opinion, what real-life implications come with screening The Eight Hundred under such an unusual context?
Wang: The pandemic created lots of trauma and placed everyone under a fearful, anxious atmosphere. Within this unusual context, it is exactly necessary that we provide a source of energy and courage, and that is exactly what The Eight Hundred aimed to communicate. It awakened and inspired a shared emotional resonance within the hearts of viewers, and in revisiting the honourable spirit of service and national pride embodied by historical martyrs, the film gives us the courage needed to face all difficulties in life.
Q3: As The Eight Hundred continues its victorious path at the box office and breaks various global records, it has become a rare phenomenon amidst the pandemic. In your opinion, how did The Eight Hundred achieve such success? What does this mean for Huayi Brothers and China’s film industry?
Wang: The Eight Hundred‘s success today resulted from the efforts of many people, from the support of administration leaders and the help of industry friends to our beloved audience’s continued passion for film. At the same time, we must thank our main production team, as well as the dedication and diligence of every member of staff who participated in the production and filming processes of The Eight Hundred.
(cont.) From a preliminary idea to entering the world, The Eight Hundred took 10 years. In the 2 years between formally beginning preparations and completion of filming, we constructed a 33-acre, 1:1 to-scale battlefield at Suzhou River, paused and reassembled the crew twice, and spent 9 months filming with a single IMAX camera. At every stage from direction and casting to filming, lights, and art direction, we put in all our effort and strove for excellence.
(cont.) The battle scene in The Eight Hundred permeates the film from start to finish; its filming process required large-scale logistics management and precise collaboration between various departments, since a single mistake at any stage could have led to massive losses. It was a process of exploration as Huayi Brothers sought to improve industrial management in the film production industry, and I believe that it was valuable as reference for the entire sector. We’ve always believed that Chinese cinema must go through industrialization in its quest for high-quality growth, so in the future we will investigate and accumulate industrial management experience in every production. Through this, we hope to contribute our efforts as Chinese cinema experiences quality improvement through industrialization across the board.
Q4: Covid-19 has seriously affected film industries globally. At the beginning of the pandemic, how was Huayi Brothers affected? How did the company face and transcend difficulties in order to achieve the success of The Eight Hundred?
Wang: Huayi Brothers is a publicly traded company, so we’re responsible not only to audiences but also to our investors. In the 180 days when theatres were closed, no new films were screened. Huayi both produces and manages theatres, so we did experience serious impacts and pressures. We made many proactive adjustments to our asset structure and concentrated all our high-quality resources towards the ‘Media + Reality’ model, which focuses on content creation and derivative value in order to continually strengthen our primary business’ competitiveness, in addition to commencing many innovative external collaborations. The fact that The Eight Hundred was released successfully just when theatres reopened and managed to lead the industry into revival is one of our key successes, as Huayi Brothers seek to proactively adjust our management strategy and business model.
Q5: In a post-pandemic world, film industries globally are trying to progress with great difficulty. For Huayi Brothers and the larger Chinese film industry, this is both a danger and an opportunity. How will Huayi Brothers prepare to turn danger into opportunity?
Wang: For Huayi Brothers, our most important direction for development is implementation of the innovative ‘Media + Reality’ business model set out by our CEO Wang Zhongjun, as well as strengthening our primary business. On one hand, we will continue pursuing new heights in film and television by ensuring regular production of exceptional content. For every release slot coming up, Huayi Brothers is prepared to share high-quality and attractive content and express our gratitude to audiences through our work. For example, the comedy film Warm Hug directed by Chang Yuan is scheduled to come out on New Year’s Eve, and The Yin Yang Master, which is a film adapted from an excellent mobile game, should also be ready for release in 2020. We are preparing for many other projects as well.
(cont.) On the other hand, we will continue to explore the possibility of multifaceted development for high-quality content, so as to both extend the lifespan of film and television works and discover more value from our core contents. Huayi Brothers has been working on real-life entertainment plans since 2011; after 9 years, as the first film and television company in China to enter this field, we have achieved the highest rates of completion and construction efficiency among film companies involved in culture and tourism. At the moment we have completed many projects around the country. Among them, the Guanlan Lake Huayi Feng Xiaogang Film Commune in Haikou, HB Studios Park in Suzhou, HBtown in Changsha, and Jianye HBtown in Zhengzhou have already begun operating; these projects help develop local cultural industries, grow tourism economies, and positively promote individual cities’ cultural profiles. On August 12th, 2020, Huayi Brothers and Zall Group agreed on a contract for constructing ‘Zall HBtown’ in Hongshan District in Wuhan, signifying our contribution to Wuhan’s economic recovery. Enthusiastic responses to The Eight Hundred has also led to anticipation among viewers and media for the future of our 33-acre Suzhou River filming site.