Wang Zhongjun, Founder and Chairman of the Board of Huayi Brothers Media Corp., runs China’s biggest media group worthy $4.68 billion. With businesses in advertising, film, music, talent management and mobile game, Huayi Brothers is literally a kingdom of entertainment and Wang Zhongjun, the king.
Wang Zhongjun, King of Entertainment
Wang Zhongjun, now 53, is the King of Entertainment in modern China.
Wang Zhongjun kept drawing pictures of characters in Chinese comic stripes when he was a child. He wanted to be an artist.
The Wang family moved frequently with Wang’s father, a Field Army member and finally settled down in the city of Beijing. Growing up in a military community granted Wang a lot more chances to watch plays and galas. But it was drawing that he liked most. To draw colorful pictures in a unified age was Wang’s early pursuit of freedom.
Things were a bit more unpredictable in Wang’s childhood: every pupil’s daily routine was to read Quotations from Chairman Mao while other authorities were denied and challenged. Politics was in the air. Wang chose to move to his father’s rural hometown for a year to practice self-reliance, assuming it would be a better environment. Wang’s drawing on the class blackboard won him respect from his new classmates as well as a badge from the Communist Youth League, which led him to be the class president once coming back to Beijing.
After junior high, the 16-year-old decided he would join the army. Twelve hours later, he found a place as a scout.
Miles of marching and days of guarding were just the beginning of his army life. But not only did he survive the monotonous regularity, he also thrived thanks to his know-how in drawing and calligraphy: he became the Command’s cartographer.
In 1980, Wang Zhongjun came back to Beijing in order to attend college. A desire to be independent urged him to land in a national bureau working full-time while attending evening classes in the Academy of Art and Design, which qualified him an art designer in the magazine owned by the uneventful bureau.
He was still drawing, and he learned photography, but his zest ran further. He began to operate a magazine named Shopping Guide with friends to ride waves in the newly-built market economy, which soon became the reason he quit his stable job.
He just wanted to run his own Shopping Guide and make it the nation’s top. Ten days after quitting, however, this magazine were labeled an unauthorized publication and his original plan went null.
No time or need to grieve, as he could draw.
Book covers, graphic design and cartoons, once Wang’s hobby, now turned into a way to make a living. 1000 yuan a month in mid -1980s.
In 1987, he bought himself a car, made in China. Did he envision at the time that he would one day own a collection of luxury cars as well as expensive horses?
It seemed the right time to settle down. Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1989, Wang went to the United States with his wife, whom he married four years ago.
He had two goals only: to get a degree, and to go back to China to run a business once $100,000 is earned.
The deadline? December of 1993.
Thus began five years of hard work. Sometimes he’d even work for 16 hours a day, delivering pizza. A five dollar tip was a joy of the day.
Mission accomplished, on time.
On February 10, 1994, Wang Zhongjun came back to China. Now 34 years old, he felt time pressure. On May 16, he opened an advertising company in Beijing International Hotel. He rented a suite and explained: “Location matters.”
The company’s first deal was to create a unified Corporate Image for Bank of China. It then signed similar deals with State Grid Corporation of China and China National Petroleum Corporation, rising to a Top 10 ad company in the nation within 3 years.
An encounter with a colleague from the old days brought Wang into the show biz. Starting with a TV series, he was among the first who incorporate advertising into the audio-visual products in the market awaken not so long ago. The series won 400 million yuan of profits and Bank of China was one of the product placements.
Wang soon spread his wings into the film industry.
Devils on the Doorstep directed by Jiang Wen, Sorry Baby and A Sign by Feng Xiaogang were Wang’s earliest investments. That was 1998, four years after he returned to China. Huayi Brothers began to have a reputation in the toddling Chinese film market.
The rest is history.
Huayi established a talent agency to represent rising stars, built a music section through acquisition; mostly importantly, it started to work with Hollywood.
Big Shot’s Funeral, a co-production by Huayi Brothers and Sony/Columbia Pictures ushered China into a blockbuster era, with Wang the film’s executive producer. This hit led to a cooperation that lasted for four years, during which both artistic films like The Missing Gun, Kekexili and box office winners Cell Phone, Kung Fu Hustle were produced. Wang later recalled: “This cooperation helped Huayi to improve budget control, to handle large-scale investment, and to sell it to the market.” Meanwhile, Feng Xiaogang’s He Sui Pian, movies made to celebrate New Year, funded by Huayi became the nation’s must-see.
Huayi then moved on to partner up with Emperor Entertainment Group and Media Asia Group to make Mainland China-Hong Kong co-productions. Films like A World without Thieves, A Chinese Tall Story and The Banquet made Huayi a peerless film mogul.
Huayi’s participation in the film The Forbidden Kingdom took its ambition to the next level. It was the first time a Chinese film company joined in a Hollywood film’s investment and distribution. Dealing with Lionsgate, Wang once again learned more about risk management and international strategic planning.
In 2007 Huayi Brothers began to build its own cinemas: once a big cinema was built, a third tier city’s box office was 10 times more than before. At the same time, the company was becoming a star factory: Zhou Xun, Li Bingbing and Fan Bingbing of Huayi almost dominated the leading roles on China’s big screens.
In Wang’s own words, a well-rounded producer is Huayi’s core asset, young talents high potential stocks, talents that could be acquired long-term investments, and proficient executives fixed asset.
The Equation of Love & Death, If You Are the One and John Rabe were some of the major Huayi works while Huayi acquired companies like Zhongqian Longde and Jinze Taihe to strengthen its cultural brokerage and film production.
October 30, 2009 was a day to remember: Huayi Brothers went public in Shenzhen Stock Exchange and became the first listed film company in China.
This only opened yet another chapter, as one year later, Wang bought 22% stake in Beijing Ourpalm Technology with $21.91 million to have a share in the growing game industry.
At any rate, Huayi had its gloomy days: some big stars left to run their own studios instead of renewing their contracts with Huayi and its most important producer Chen Kuo-Fu also left the company after a number of unwelcoming films. Media used the word “earthquake” to describe the conglomerate’s crisis.
But Wang shed off the investors’ doubts and concerns by presenting smashing hits CZ12 and Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, two successes in a row echoes his earlier response that it is only normal to have relocations in the show biz, that when one talent leaves it only offers room for another, that there is no need to remorse as it is not he who was leaving.
Tough as Wang Zhongjun is, he does not conceal his trust and bond with cousin Wang Zhonglei, the other Huayi brother and director Feng Xiaogang, the one he almost treats like a brother, though he seldom praises them in public. Wang Zhonglei is the company’s face when it comes to film industry parties and press conferences while Feng Xiaogang’s series of box office miracles is the trademark of the film company. Wait, then where is Wang Zhongjun? He is busy attending different finance forums or economic roundtables. In fact, he has been shortlisted as the nation’s most influential entrepreneurs for several times.
He does not need to work for 16 hours a day any more.
“Sometimes you will not see me in the company for a month and this is the way I work, as it is not necessary to think about the company strategic expansion all day long. I guess I am just lucky that Huayi has been developing quite well these years.” says Wang.
Huayi recently announced to build a film theme park based on Feng Xiaogang’s blockbusters in Hainan. Shortly after, it used $109.54 million to acquire 50.88% stake of Yinhan, the third largest mobile game company in China.
In Wang’s mansion with a galaxy of contemporary Chinese art, an army of fine horses and a fleet of imported cars, paintings from different ages and places are his treasure while a statue of Mao is his favorite. Meanwhile, his spacious office in downtown Beijing is packed with his own paintings.
The King is expanding his territory and it is just a matter of time that this kingdom grows into an empire.
Wang Zhongjun accepted our interview in his Beijing studio. Photo credit: Qi Zhenghai
THE CHINESE FILM MARKET: What do you think of the recent rise of directors born in the 1970s and 1980s?
WANG: Not just in the film industry. The rise of those born in the 1970s and 1980s could be seen in any other fields as each faces fierce competition in China. It is normal in a market expanding at a high speed. In fact, I think the competition in the Chinese film market is far from sufficient as the market has just come into being. If there were sufficient competition, the market should have been more evenly shared. For example, last year, among earnings of the whole industry, 8 billion yuan, Huayi alone took 2.26 billion and the second place Enlight Media took 1.6 billion, so the top three almost took half of the market share. As to this year, the box office grossing will be at least 10 billion yuan, and Huayi expects to take more than 3 billion while the second and third should at least earn 3 billion. More competition should be encouraged.
The media tends to exaggerate things about the recent performance gap between experienced directors and the new ones. I think the emergence of a new generation of directors means the market is maturing. The film industry cannot be always stratified a limited number of established directors. But the media report reading a collective decline of the veteran directors is an overstatement. It is just that their new films are yet to come out. Up till this August, some their works are still in post-production, so it is not fair to say they have been defeated by the younger generation.
The fact that Xu Zheng, Guan Hu and Zhao Wei have made their names known as directors is a good phenomenon. Also, the Chinese film market has taken a different shape after the rise of second and third tier cities: young people’s film preferences have changed accordingly.
CFM: So Huayi will continue to focus its business in Mainland China?
WANG: For sure. Film has been our core business over the years and will remain so in the coming few years. The Chinese market is still our priority. As its annual box office grossing is about to reach 20 billion yuan, the local market has lots of potential to explore. I think if you cast Tom Cruise in an English film like Assembly, it could be an international hit. But now, Chinese films are yet to be global in terms of channel, language and its company’s influence. At the moment, if a Chinese film could gain $5million overseas, the film company would be very happy. What we are able to make up till now, are Kung Fu blockbusters, like CZ 12, grossing up to $10 million, an amount almost the summit of what could our films could achieve presently. So it would not be sensible to put Huayi’s focus abroad.
Meanwhile, the American film market has remained a grossing of $10billion for years and this is not a fast growing industry, while China’s film market grows each year at an unbelievable speed, it is only reasonable to focus on Mainland China. There are many film talents in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but in terms of the market, neither is big enough.
But of course, Huayi has its own overseas strategies. 20 days ago I had a talk with Warner Brothers as well as some independent producers in Los Angeles and I felt Chinese film companies could participate in the global market. But it is still a long way to go, I mean for a Chinese film company to take the initiative with a big budget and gain 0.5 or 1 billion US dollars.
As long as Huayi’s branding, influence and financing keep enhancing, I think it is OK to participate in investment and project design. And it shall bring positive changes to the company’s product structure.
On the contrary, Hollywood is taking great interest in the Chinese film market. You can tell that Pacific Rim’s box office has outnumbered that in the US. American companies want to enter the market but do not exactly know how to, just the Chinese film companies’ are mystified by the American film market.
CFM: Some declare a reshuffle in Chinese film industry will occur within five years due to a wave of film students coming back from overseas and the involvement of private equity in film, etc. What do you think?
WANG: I think it is too early to declare this. In order to reshuffle, first of all, there need to be a deck of cards already, but that is not true in China at the moment: the market is yet to be established and structured. Studying is one thing; to actually do it is another.
CFM: OurPalm has won millions of profits for Huayi. Could you share your insights about this?
WANG: As an executive, I try not to rely on a single product too much, the same as the producers and stars. Huayi has been listed for almost four years. Right after being listed, we made an industry business mapping: for me, the game industry is what is the most similar to the film industry, with R & D, arts, settings and so on, so we invested in OurPalm, which has generated 2 billion yuan profits for Huayi. We are proud not just because of the amount of profit, but the progress of Internet, which means our decision was right. Before, mobile phone was quite limited to a small group of people in China, but now, even a kid owns one. To develop mobile phone games means steady growth for Huayi. Film, TV series and talent agency were Huayi’s top three business, but now, mobile phone game becomes the fourth, with even greater potential.
Tencent has become Huayi’s major stock holder, right after Jack Ma of Alibaba. That is to say, two best Internet companies are backing up Huayi: it leads to wild imagination what Huayi could achieve.
CFM: Some suggested Huayi is now learning from Disney to build theme parks and such.
WANG: Each has its business model, but Disney has indeed set up a very good example. Why shouldn’t we learn from the best in Hollywood? We spent 3 years doing a comprehensive study about theme parks and are now building our own in Guanlan Lake in Haikou, with Feng Xiaogang’s film as its theme. We are expanding our film business into tourism.
Paintings created by Wang Zhongjun