Enlight-ening strategy

Why Wang Changtian’s studio is on a winning streak

Du Juan w

Du Juan: stars in Enlight Media’s latest hit American Dreams in China

Hollywood has never been too interested in movies about business start-ups. But with the drama that surrounded Mark Zuckerberg’s founding of Facebook, studio execs figured audiences might be intrigued. They were right. The Social Network was both a critical and a commercial success.

Now in the works: a biopic about Steve Jobs, with Ashton Kucher starring as the tech titan. Insiders say the film will depict how the young college dropout Jobs brought together Steve Wozniak’s engineering skills with his own legendary sales savvy and intensity to start-up and run Apple, one of the world’s most respected brands.

Now China has a film about a business venture too. This time its plot revolves around an ambitious young Chinese who, failing to get a US study visa, decides instead to set up a business. In this case it’s also inspired by a true story – although this time the names are changed.

The true story on which the film is based? It’s the life story of Yu Minhong, who co-founded New Oriental in 1993 with his friends Xu Xiaoping and Wang Qiang. It went on to become the biggest English language trainer in China with more than 700 centres around the country. It also became the first Chinese educational institution to list on the New York Stock Exchange in 2006.

Yu’s story has become part of local business folklore (he’s also well known as an author, 10 of his books have made the bestseller lists, including The Relentless Pursuit of Success, a motivational book). And last weekend his story arrived in cinemas, with the launch of American Dreams in China. The film, which cost only $9 million to make, has done very well at the box office since its debut on May 17, taking in over $51 million in ticket sales, according to media research firm Entgroup.

The plot tracks the lives of the three pals who establish an English language school in the 1990s. The film spans almost 30 years, and is on one level a drama about friendship. However, it is also proving popular as a sort of cinematic MBA, following the three as they navigate the choppy world of Chinese business.

Some of the lessons wouldn’t be taught at a conventional business school. For example, the young entrepreneurs face a tricky situation in 1999 after the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Mirroring what happened to Yu and his partners, they find their offices stormed by an enraged mob. In the febrile atmosphere they are labelled as traitors for running an English language school. It takes all their powers of persuasion to pacify the protesters and stop their school from being wrecked.

The movie isn’t a full rendition of real-life events, mind you. It makes no mention of the US regulatory probe into New Oriental’s financial structure (see WiC160) last year. It also enlists a little dramatic licence to emphasise the closeness of the three protagonists. The co-founders of New Oriental went their separate ways after the IPO, with Wang and Xu cashing out straightaway.

Still, audiences haven’t quibbled about the changes, warming instead to the film’s feel-good factor.

In fact, the box office success for American Dreams in China is another big win for Enlight Media, probably China’s most influential film studio at the moment. The run of hits started with the December blockbuster Lost In Thailand. That caught everybody by surprise (including the Thai tourism authorities, which is delighted by the subsequent surge in Chinese visitors inspired by the film). On a $4 million budget, the film went on to gross more than $200 million, leaving bigger budget offerings trailing in the dust.

Riding on that success, Enlight rolled out another hit in late April called So Young with another $122 million in ticket sales (see WiC192). American Dreams in China may better that in the coming weeks.

Enlight’s winning streak is creating a buzz, as well as industry talk that it is on the way towards displacing Huayi Brothers as China’s entertainment kingpin. Rival studio Huayi hasn’t had a big hit so far this year (although it had some involvement in Stephen Chow’s big Lunar New Year hit Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, see WiC184).

Huayi recorded net profits of Rmb240 million ($39.1 million) last year, on revenues of Rmb1.4 billion, while Enlight pocketed net income of Rmb310 million, up 76% on the previous year, on sales of Rmb1 billion.

Enlight’s share price has continued to climb, with its market value reaching Rmb14.5 billion in late April following the cinema release of So Young. It has carried on climbing since, reaching Rmb16.2 billion, although Huayi is still ahead with a market cap of Rmb17.9 billion.

Wang Changtian, chief executive at Enlight, says the company’s rapid ascent is a mixed blessing: “Recently, people are expecting a lot more from us, so the pressure has been pretty high,” he told The Entrepreneur magazine last week.

Launched in 1998, Enlight started out co-producing Hong Kong films with the likes of Wilson Yip (Flash Point) and Gordon Chan (who directed the martial arts mystery The Four for the company). As it grew the firm also got involved in making TV programmes, having some success with music and entertainment formats.

More recently Wang has devoted most of his attention to film production, in hope of cashing in on the surge in audiences at Chinese cinemas. Enlight’s sweet spots are the action and romance genres, which are hugely popular with younger audiences. He says Lost In Thailand was part of carefully planned shift towards making films for emerging local tastes. “We have a deep understanding of the entertainment industry and young Chinese audiences,” he told Screen Daily.

In another new departure, Enlight has switched from working with established filmmakers to betting on up-and-coming directors like Xu Zheng, the actor-director of Lost in Thailand, and Vicki Zhao, the actress-turned-first-time director of So Young. “Some of the older directors are not very creative and their attitude toward filmmaking is also outdated, so I don’t like to work with them,” Wang told The Entrepreneur. “I have no choice but to look for new blood.”

Huayi Brothers is also diversifying. Global Entrepreneur, another Chinese magazine, reports that Huayi Bros has made investments in the music industry, cinemas, theme parks and tourism as part of a strategy to become a more diversified entertainment conglomerate…

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