Bruno Wu is called the ‘CEO of China’ as in Chief Entertainment Officer. Known for blending work and pleasure during nightly dinners at his Shanghai supper club, he is decidedly a controversial media mogul. Even more so after he made a spate of high-profile announcements over the past 15 months with very little to show for them so far. Little wonder there’s a lot of skepticism about his complex network of companies plus important relationships with major filmmakers. He came to Hollywood to kick the tires about acquiring Summit Entertainment in late 2011, and by February 2012 formed the Harvest Seven Stars Media Fund with an initial capital-raising target of $800M to invest in mergers, acquisitions, distribution, marketing, and content. This was followed by a series of joint ventures with Fast & Furious 6 director Justin Lin and Spider-Man franchise producer Avi Arad plus plans to remake John Woo’s The Killer. He also has intentions to build a mega-media hub in China called Chinawood.
Wu is based in China but is a fluent English and French speaker who earned his PhD from Shanghai’s Fudan University, has his Master’s from Washington University in St Louis, and also studied at the Université de Savoie in the French Alps. He was COO of Asia Television Ltd in the early 1990s before co-chairing Sina.com, the owner of China’s version of Twitter. He is currently chairman of the Chinese online video portal Ku6 Media Co Ltd. His own companies include the Sun Redrock Investment Group, Sun Enterprises, and the Sun Media Group, which is headed by his wife Yang Lan (known as the ‘Oprah of China with 55 million social media followers) and owns a TV production banner and a female-skewed media and marketing company called Her Village among many entities. Wu’s new Seven Stars Media Group houses all of the entertainment-related ventures announced in the past 15 months, including Tiger TV which will be a mixed martial arts channel launching later this summer in both the U.S. and China. Wu himself is an executive producer on two movies that were showcased at last month’s Cannes Film Festival where he traveled with an entourage consisting of bodyguards and two Michelin-starred chefs. That’s where I conducted this rare interview:
DEADLINE: There’s a history of people who make splashy announcements and tarnish themselves when they don’t follow through. You’ve had this series of announcements and little seems to have actually happened. There’s been some skepticism.
BRUNO WU: Again, first of all, everything that we have announced is in very good proceeding. So far they all made their schedule and are exceeding their schedule. With the exception of our partnership with Jake Eberts because he suddenly passed away which was a real setback on Last Empress. And except for the remake of The Killer that, because of the difference of opinion over the script, we’ll probably turn into a TV series through Justin Lin’s company. So we so far are at the point where everything we’ve done we are well ahead of schedule. Normally, we don’t like to make announcements. But when we work with a partner, you announce it, and certain things must be announced to make it clear. But we don’t have to announce every progress until we have a product coming to the market. In a way, I understand the skepticism but it really doesn’t matter to me. I’m not bothered by it. To me, I focus on the fundamentals of business. It’s how do I build lean-and-mean scalable high-value creation, great IP creation, great brand creation with the best talent for the content, very strong digital distribution, all distribution, partnerships with best partners in every silo, control pay and platform digital distribution and control the new generation of P&A which is social media marketing and viral. Those to me are the fundamentals.
DEADLINE: What do you think the perception of you is outside of China, specifically in Hollywood?
BRUNO WU: Well, I tend not to worry about what the perception is. I think people have their different views over different things. They have different opinions over different business models and over different business interests. And I think anybody who tries to follow the conventional Hollywood rule, will probably be better liked than the ones who try to think a little bit out of the box. That will probably be more likely the case for a foreigner. I think that’s all natural. Understandable. But we don’t worry about this. We worry primarily about the fundamentals of a business in the entertainment field.
DEADLINE: Which is?
WU: I’m about building a next-generation entertainment company that’s lean and mean and scalable. Building an ecosystem for the bigger Chinese movie scene. Exploring a new pathway and being a pioneer. As we say in Chinese, “Being the first brave man who has the guts to taste the crabs.” I see that there’s a very strong need to develop the next generation of film and TV companies. Which means that you have to be very highly concentrated only on IP and brand, and have a strong partnership with talent. I believe that IP is more people-driven than project-driven. That’s why I don’t buy the model of “hire somebody, write a script” – that you have an idea and then hire the people to go with it. I don’t do that. I’m very soon going to be announcing my deal with two of the top Chinese producers who just broke records like you wouldn’t believe. I invest in people. I think: people first, projects second. Also, you don’t have to do a lot of quantity. It’s the quality that counts. You don’t need these complicated development processes or very big overhead. You can outsource everything with every partner in every niche that’s highly specialized and are the best in the world. I’m happy to share. I like to work with the best people.
DEADLINE: What is Hollywood doing wrong vis a vis the Chinese film industry?
WU: I personally think that Hollywood agencies ought to play a much better role in the development of Chinese films. Otherwise they’re missing out on a lot of opportunities. But I have to say that the Hollywood agencies probably will have to change a little bit their business models in dealing with China. Currently, they’re continuing with a model they did with the Germans, the Italians, the Russians, the Indians, all the suckers that had money to come into Hollywood who would follow the existing system and put money into slate funds or whatever. It may not be the most efficient way, in my opinion, just taking the projects developed by studios that couldn’t be sold and are sitting on the shelf and trying to sell them to newcomers. I think, for China, there needs to be a more customized approach. We have real needs that need to be serviced to enter into Hollywood and they’re not being addressed.
DEADLINE: What’s an example?
WU: Everything I do should be advised by an agency like CAA. I’m doing so much. But because of the fact they have an agenda they want us to follow, they didn’t really try to take a look at my agenda and make it work for me. In other words, they come from the angle of “I am Hollywood” or they come from the angles “I am Hollywood and this is what you should do with me” rather than, “What can I do for you?” I think that’s the difference. We’d love to work with the agencies, I think there’s tremendous opportunity. But they have to localize. CAA had the vision to be the first in Beijing which is appreciated. But I have much broader needs that they could possibly help with. And they don’t understand that.
DEADLINE: What is the status of your Harvest Seven Stars Media Fund’s $800 million goal?
WU: The initial reporting had it for film financing and it was actually wrong. We had film financing as one of the goals. But the initial funds were all for company acquisitions – equity investments into entities, not into films themselves. So we have about half a billion U.S. dollars worth of funds that are committed by various partners. But we don’t actually need to call the capital until we have something to acquire. Otherwise you wind up paying all kinds of interest costs on it. So if you don’t have a deal, you wind up losing money. However we’re actively looking for takeovers.
DEADLINE: Will you look to partner with a Hollywood studio?
WU: For actual productions? I think we will probably have to. We probably won’t be able to completely stay in the independent world. There are so many people approaching us.
DEADLINE: What’s happening with Chinawood in Tianjin? I know a private equity registration rule change made it difficult to domicile funds in Tianjin.
WU: Chinawood is a fantastic project. Now we still have a holding set up in Chinawood but we’re moving a lot of the actual operation together with Pinewood coming in. You couldn’t find a better partner than Pinewood. So we still have the Tianjin-registered headquarters but we’re now set up in Shanghai. We’re in the middle of working on a very nice piece of land with facilities. Buildings are already completed along the Bund in Shanghai so this will become the Pinewood Chinawood base.
DEADLINE: Will this be your base of operations?
WU: We’ll take two or three hundred different kind of production companies and have them housed there and that’s Phase One. Have shared office, shared resources. That’s what Pinewood does: it has three hundred companies on its premises. So we’ll aggregate all that so it becomes a co-production hub and a co-financing hub. I think you’ll probably see at least part of it operational first quarter next year.
DEADLINE: Up to what limit would you be financing each film project?
WU: Our position is we are always prepared to finance it all. So we don’t have to be kowtowing to any other financiers’ needs. If we are to work with somebody, they have to bring some other values: distribution or P&A in their local markets. That we’ll go for because we don’t have the ability to do that. But just for the purpose of financing we don’t have to do it.
DEADLINE: Given the Wanda takeover of AMC, any U.S. companies you could make a takeover target?
WU: An exhibitor is not very interesting for me. My personal interest is mainly in digital distribution, or top-tier IP ownership.
DEADLINE: What do you think about Django Unchained which was released in China and pulled in the same day and then re-released with cuts?
WU: Well, it did contain more violence and nudity than the normal Chinese audience could accept. It’s not just a regulatory issue, it’s also a cultural and habit issue, an acceptance level issue. So I think this is understandable. I was actually pretty surprised that these few shots sneaked in. A lot of Asian/Confucius countries have censorship. When Titanic was showing in China, they cut 12 minutes out of the Singapore version and two minutes were taken out of the Chinese version. I think Chinese censorship on a film is very relaxed. Unless you touch on a political taboo and talk about Taiwan or Tibet independence, of course, you’ve got zero chance no matter how you try to recut it.
DEADLINE: You’re well connected at the government level. It’s easy for you to get a film through. How can filmmakers in Hollywood cut through Chinese red tape on the theatrical side?
WU: I don’t want to be helping in general unless it’s a movie I’m involved in. But otherwise they have to deal with Huaxia and China Film Group directly. I don’t want to be helping because it’s like I’m stepping on the toes of Huaxia and China Film Group. They say, “Wait. You know you should be on our side, right?” It is very easy for us to get a film through. But given that, we follow the rules, also. I always follow the rules. No fake co-productions. We know how to make content agreeable and acceptable. We’re very good at that.
DEADLINE: So you have the digital distribution structure yourself for pay, but when it comes to theatrical you have only China Film Group and Huaxia as alternatives?
WU: I have a joint venture with Huaxia but that’s for acquiring content. Marketing I do pretty much myself. For moviegoers in China, social media is their daily life, so it has become such an unsymmetrical game that you could spend millions on P&A. Huaxia and China Film Group do not spend at all what the foreign movie P&As do. I think that our firepower today in China is second to none. I will very soon announce a major partnership in that area, too. Because, you see, that’s one of the core pieces: content distribution. Not just theatrical. Theatrical is the partnership route, but pay TV, pay medium OTT, cable, I control myself. Distribution to me, ex-U.S. theatrical, is presale in the existing domestic market. With the kind of talents we have, it’s easy for us to tee up with a domestic distributor. In China, I will make the investment in the best distributor because we are already the digital pay platform distribution. In China, I’m the best. In 1999, I brought the first set-top boxes to China. They were actually started with my company.
DEADLINE: What do you think about China’s penchant for putting two Hollywood films up against each other on the same weekend which happens recently?
WU: It’s hard to comment on that, but I’ll tell you that last year was very difficult for the Chinese movies up until the end of last year. Hollywood movies killed the Chinese movies. Chinese movies at one time had only 37% of the market share all the way to when Lost In Thailand came out, then we turned a corner. So it was very natural for the regulators to try to help the Chinese movies. It’s understandable; it’s a regulated market, but it’s a temporary measure.
DEADLINE: Lost In Thailand broke records at home but didn’t travel. So what’s the key to getting a movie to work in China and abroad?
WU: Everybody always asks me that same question because now all of a sudden no other Chinese ever had more movies in Cannes than I did and now I may very well get an Oscar nomination. It’s awesome. So it’s kind of a shock to people to see how I went from commercial guru to a creative guru. But I tell people, “I’m not really a creative.” It’s always in my heart that I have the creative side because when I was in high school I won #1 in the country in Chinese literature composition. In elementary school, I won #1 in Shanghai in poetry writing. And I love music and photography. But your question about Chinese movies going to the world: I think you have to first of all start to redefine the definition of Chinese movies. I don’t believe Chinese movies should only have Chinese cast and talents shooting it with a Chinese story. Hollywood is a symbol of global movies, it’s not just American movies. It’s become a platform and a melting pot; it’s for all the talents and capital from all over the globe. Therefore I’m trying a new route for the Chinese movie. In other words, I am financing global pictures with global talents. Of course i will bring in the Chinese elements, yet you have to have global talents to create a global picture.
DEADLINE: Is the Chinese government supportive of that?
WU: I think the government is very supportive of that. We have to understand that the moment you have subtitles and you have to speak Chinese, you already limit your global audience. So that’s why I’m keen on making English language movies. English is still the global language and we can’t change that. If you watch a Chinese movie with subtitles, it’s just like watching an Arabic movie with Chinese subtitles. That explains why you can’t take Chinese language movies and expect them to go abroad. Another important element is that Chinese creative storytelling still has a way to go. They’re better with screenplay and details but they’re not very good with the structure of the storytelling. And we lack tremendous craftsmanship. We don’t have the good prop man, cameraman, soundman because all Chinese schools teach you only textbook stuff. More rhetoric than substance, more theory than practice. So that’s why it’s part of my Pinewood venture. We are bringing in the best talents from the UK to establish training centers in China. And by the way this is moving very well and we’re into the process of doing this. I’m trying to tell them Chinese movies are not just about making Chinese local movies. It’s about the Chinese money, the Chinese creativeness participating in a global movie. The problem is not the government not supporting this, they of course support this big time. The problem is whether other people are capable of doing the same thing I’m doing. I think the culture barrier, being able to speak the language and understand the culture, is a very important thing because we have the ability of communicating with creative people.
DEADLINE: How do you think the movie business in China has changed since you were a kid?
WU: Light years. Unbelievable from all aspects. From what I can remember from my childhood to now, it’s not just another country, it’s another universe. People sometimes pressure things to change faster, but we have to understand that in a country with 1.4 billion people and such heavy DNA heritage and cultural baggage, as long as you are moving, you’re not stopping and going back. We need to encourage it. It’s almost like a sleeping giant waking up. If you look at every part of that giant, it may be chaotic and disorderly but overall the giant is in the process of standing up from a laying down position. So I think the movie business is of course part of that process. The quality of movies that we saw five years ago compared to what we see today is just amazing.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about the filmmaker relationships you have.
WU: We have our film content in three subgroups. One is pedigreed award content and these are the movies I co-finance. I participate, I distribute for China, and I exec produce. But we’re very very careful about what we pick – The Immigrant, Grace Of Monaco. We have two or three others in the pipeline. My wife and I like products that will hold their value 50 or even 100 years from now, not just things that can come and go. Immigrant is classic, Grace is classic. The performances are out of this world. So I’m very proud to be able to participate in and co-produce those two movies. Besides pedigree, it’s English-language commercial titles. So you have Justin Lin, Avi Arad, and Pierre-Ange. These are people that have tremendous records. So I’m very honored to be working with them.
DEADLINE: With Justin, your deal was made about a year ago. Why no output from it?
WU: There couldn’t be because he has a deal with Universal. He was committed to do Fast And Furious 6. But we have 17 or 18 projects in development. On 12 or 13 we’re already in version two or three of the script. There are one or two very close to being greenlit. That’s pretty good within a year to a year and a half. I think Justin is the most talented Asian-descent director on the globe. Number one. Period. He’s the first Asian director that broke into the billion dollar club. We’re very honored to be his partner. I wanted to make sure that when Justin comes out, when he shoots a next movie, it will be one step up from the last. Justin also wants to make sure. He’s so committed. He also has a passion project he’s had for years, based on an all-time Manga series, one of those that has heart and soul and action, and it’s universal. So he’ll take time to develop it, we’re deep into it, but it’ll probably be another year. You see, when he did Fast & Furious 6, from end to finish, it was a year. But now we give him a lot more time to get the next script ready before we go to shooting. But in between he’ll do something fantastic which I can’t talk about right now. I have to wait until he goes public with it. We’ll do a TV series in between, but there’s something else.
DEADLINE: What are you doing specifically with Avi?
WU: With Avi we’ll do four superhero franchises in the next five years. We have all four identified. One we’re going to start development on soon, and another is very deep into development. We hope this summer to start the prep and pre-production of the animation and cartoon series. The first one, which is also a TV series, is Rise Of The Terracotta Warriors. We have the visual done, and we have the first part of the script out. And we have the animation production partners selected. We have part of the distribution secured. It’s turn-key. It’s ready to go. Conceptually I worked with Avi on the big story, but Avi’s so good, he’s the best, so he’s got this system. So I don’t need to be involved with creative, that’s all his. On the three other franchises, one we are already looking for people for the treatment, but we have the concept developed already. Avi has an impeccable record with Marvel and, if you look at his track record with 22 movies, he did $7.4 billion in box office and a few dozens of billions of dollars in ancillary products. That’s amazing.
DEADLINE: And with Pierre-Ange?
WU: With Pierre-Ange, we have Triangle and Shanghai. Triangle is like another Taken or Transporter which is Pierre-Ange’s sweet spot. Triangle is about The Golden Triangle, the drug trading center where there are all kinds of bad guys. There’s Al-Qaeda, the Hong Kong mafia, the Triads, the Burmese war lords, the Thai mafia: everybody is there and here you have a U.S. DEA agent, very accomplished, but not liked by his boss. When U.S. law enforcement goes there they can’t carry any weapons so they have to work with their bare hands and local support. So he goes there to investigate a case and there’s a female Chinese law enforcement agent, of course great looking, and it’s like Mr. & Mrs. Smith. She can mobilize great local support so that’s how this U.S. agent and this Chinese agent work together through conflicts, through romance, through big time action. Every movie Pierre-Ange does on a low budget of 15 or 20 million euros averages 200 million-plus in global box office.
DEADLINE: And what is happening with The Last Empress which was under your Eberts deal?
WU: Jake Eberts was doing Last Empress and Mission Boys for us, both great projects. We’ve almost finalized the script for Mission Boys and we’re looking for a director to attach to finalize the script. But for Last Empress we have fantastic treatment and synopsis by the best possible people in China. Now we’re going to do a draft of the script with the best writer in China who is so familiar with this history His job is to get it factually right and dp the basic structure of the story, and then he’s going to hand it to a world class scriptwriter who will do it in English.
DEADLINE: Is Gong Li still attached?
WU: Gong Li is still attached, yes. And we have three or four other top people attached but I can’t announce that just because we don’t have a timetable for shooting.
DEADLINE: What movies did you love growing up?
BRUNO WU: All the classics. These included some indie British movies like Jane Eyre. I adore those movies. That’s why, when I was in the UK, I traveled all the way to see the Rochester estate in the movie which is close to Birmingham. Every classic movies, those are my favorite movies. I’m a classic movie person. I love action movies, too, but when we grew up we didn’t have much action movies. In the late 1980s we started to see Jackie Chan movies, Hong Kong movies. I remember at that time I tried to get a video tape and it was a big thing.