INTERVIEW: Heyi Pictures president, Matthew Liu

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Launched in August 2014, Heyi Pictures is the film arm of online streaming giant Youku Tudou, which aims to leverage the company’s strengths in internet marketing and IP creation to produce a slate of features for both theatrical and online distribution.

The company has recently started to branch out internationally – talking to US companies about co-production and investing in Korea-China co-productions such as Sun Hao’s Bad Guys Always Die, produced by Korea’s Kang Jegyu and China’s Feng Xiaogang. Starring Taiwan’s Chen Bolin and Korean actress Son Ye-jin, the film recently premiered at the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF).

During BIFF, Heyi Pictures and Youku Tudou also presented two pan-Asian omnibus films, which they produced in collaboration with the festival. Color Of Asia – Masters comprises short films from Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, China’s Wang Xiaoshuai, Korea’s Im Sang-soo and Japan’s Naomi Kawase.

Meanwhile, Colors Of Asia – Newcomers encompasses four shorts from newcomers Asmita Shrish and Fateme Ahmadi (Nepal), Phuttiphong Aroonpheng (Thailand), Chen Liang (China) and Lee Hanjong (Korea).

Heyi Pictures president Matthew Liu talks about the company’s international expansion and the convergence of the film and internet industries in China.

How are you progressing on developing in-house film projects?

In our first year, we have been partnering with other players in the industry on our film projects and by doing so we were able to learn the rules of the game. We actually started investing in feature films back in 2013 and since then have been shifting more towards leading our own projects. Old Boys: The Way Of The Dragon was the first film we developed in-house and the second will be a big-screen version of our web series Surprise. Over the next two years, we will be focusing on bringing more web originals to the silver screen.

We also aim to bring new thinking into the film industry and make the relationship between producers and audience more interactive. In the past it was a one-way exchange, but we want viewers to interact more with movie projects, and play a more active role in disseminating news about them.

Are all your film projects based on internet IP?

Some of the stories come from the internet and some don’t. Surprise is adapted from one of our web series, but the story is also based on the Chinese classic Journey To The West. In mainland China, the internet is evolving into a rich source of IP, but the [Chinese] industry has been sourcing stories from popular novels, TV shows and games all along. We’re just trying to source good content that is an appropriate fit with the film medium. At present, our primary focus is the web series we’ve been building over the past few years.

Is it difficult to find good content?

It’s not an easy job for anyone – however we do have some advantages. Lots of people upload and share content on our platform every day and there is a mechanism for the most popular content to move up the hierarchy. We contract both content and creators from our platform – we discovered the directors of Old Boys and Surprise on our platform – and in some cases we also use the cast from the web originals. The short videos residing on our platform are closer to the movie format than novels and video games, so they’re easier to adapt.

Why did you decide to produce pan-Asian projects like Color Of Asia?

We want to identify new business opportunities by working with directors from the rest of Asia and we also want to work with Hollywood through co-productions. Asian projects are easier to start with as we have similar cultural backgrounds. However, there is a gap in terms of budgets and technology compared with Hollywood. South Korea sits at the top in Asia in terms of their industrial processes, but they’re still not at the level of the world’s best.

Recently we’ve co-produced Bad Guys Always Die, a project that involves both China and Korea, and we’re looking at co-producing with other Korean partners. Some of these projects will be both Chinese and Korean-language – for example one story is about a group of Chinese people in Korea – so the dialogue will be mixed.

Do Chinese audiences accept Korean films in their original language?

The Chinese audience goes to the cinema for two reasons – to realise their dreams through something spectacular and to get an emotional kick that is closer to their personal experience. Korean movies are not as visually appealing as Hollywood productions and the stories are not that close to the lives of Chinese audiences. That’s why Korean movies have not been hugely successful in China.

However, Chinese audiences have a very strong acceptance of Korean actors and actresses, so we need to make good use of them. We need to find different stories that resonate more closely with Chinese audiences. We will use talents from both sides and leverage the industrial processes of the Korean movie industry.

What about stars from other parts of Asia?

We have a star from Thailand in our film version of Surprise – Mike Angelo (aka Pirath Nitipaisankul) who stars in a TV drama, based on a Korean show that is very popular in China. Thai movies are also becoming more popular in China.

As you build out your movie business, would you be interested in buying a traditional film company?

Not yet. People are the most important factor in the creative business – it’s about the creators behind the projects – while in the distribution business, it’s the distribution people that really matter. Our strategy for working with traditional production houses is decided by the speed of our development. Today’s industry has become more and more convergent. We are all focused on bringing the best content to our viewers.