EXCLUSIVE: Their films have been accepted into competition at the Sundance Film Festival four times — and now a fifth, with today’s news of the acceptance of first-time director Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. Nina Yang Bongiovi and Forest Whitaker have been business partners for seven years through Significant Productions, and in that time have launched Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan to A-list status with the acclaimed Fruitvale Station and backed Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, a critical fave that studios passed on before Significant produced it to profit.
Now, it seems they are helping launch the career of another filmmaker. “We believe in Boots Riley, and think his film makes an important statement for a new generation,” said Bongiovi of the first-time feature director.
While Bongiovi and Whitaker have become darlings of the festival circuit, known for high-quality fare, Bongiovi takes a certain pride that their (aptly named) production company “is still a lean company.” And it’s not stopping. Significant Productions, which is partnered with MNM Creative on all of its product, is now putting together its first U.S.-Chinese co-production — something many of the larger production companies around town are scrambling to do.
“I’ve been in the business for 18 years but we started this journey of mission-driven storytelling for the past seven,” said Bongiovi. “Forest and I met on a project in 2009 on a Chinese-based feature film about the adoption of a Chinese child, and it never went anywhere. That’s how we connected. After that, Forest was so generous and said to me, ‘I just did a deal with ABC/Disney. Why don’t you come join me in a production company?’ ”
It’s now fitting that the producing duo are finally getting together on a Chinese production, of sorts. A U.S.-Chinese co-production feature documentary this week went before the cameras. The subject: former NBA player Stephon Marbury, who rose to fame in the U.S. and then fell hard only to move to China to become a sports icon there winning titles for Beijing.
“It’s a cautionary but inspirational tale,” said Bongiovi. “When you are that fortunate and achieve that kind of fame, there is excess and that ultimately brought him down. He lost everything. The only team that wanted him was in China, so he went to China, and lo and behold, he won the championship for Beijing and then another … it was a rebirth and a redemption.” He currently plays for the Beijing Fly Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association.
Three years ago while Significant Productions was underway on Dope, Bongiovi ended up writing Marbury a letter to see if he would be willing to do a film on his life. “He actually wrote back and said, ‘I’ll talk to you, and see if you are full of crap.’ ” They then got on a video chat.
Even though many others were chasing rights to his story, not surprisingly, the two connected — partly because Bongiovi is a Chinese woman finding success producing African American-themed films, and he is an African American finding success in China. Marbury is so successful in China that he is the first African American on a postal stamp in the country. There are two statues in his honor and a museum for him. “He is building a legacy in China,” said Bongiovi. “He is now part of the culture and beloved by the people. He is the only international basketball player that really made it that big there.”
The yet untitled, cross-cultural documentary started rolling before the camera Monday in Beijing. Said Bongiovi: “Every film we produce we are so proud of because it allows diverse voices a seat at the table.”