The Chinese Movie Entrepreneur Taking Hollywood by Storm
Faith Brewitt meets China’s First Lady of Film, Wu Bing, President and Co-founder of China’s premier entertainment and media company, DMG Entertainment, and executive producer of this year’s biggest movie ‘Iron Man 3’, which DMG co-produced with Disney-owned Marvel Studios.
As globalization continues across industries, many sectors find that working China into their tried-and-true strategies is their biggest challenge. One global leader facing this dilemma is Hollywood. China represents the first-ever real threat to America’s century long position as the largest entertainment market; and as such Hollywood studios are scrambling for ground in China.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Wu Bing, the president and co-founder of Beijing-based DMG Entertainment and executive producer of this year’s biggest movie ‘Iron Man 3’, which DMG co-produced with Disney-owned Marvel Studios. The worldwide success of ‘Iron Man 3’ - the movie has raked in over a billion dollars globally with US$125 million of that in China alone - has put Bing and DMG in a unique position in the US-China film globalization story.
On the surface, Bing is the model of a modern Chinese businesswoman - poised, pleasant and professional. Behind her charming demeanor lies a sharp business mind, instinctive creative spirit and a competitive drive that pushed her to become a five-time gold medalist in gymnastics and synchronized swimming and coach of the national champion gymnastics team.
In 1993, Bing formed DMG (Dynamic Media Group) with partners – Dan Mintz, a film director from New York, and Peter Xiao, a Beijing financial professional. Flash forward 20 years and the three have grown the business into China’s premier entertainment and media company.
I spoke to Wu Bing about the challenges of working in Hollywood as a Chinese woman; how being a champion gymnast helps her as an entrepreneur; and working with Jackie Chan and Johnny Depp!
FB: You’re now known as ‘Hollywood’s first female Chinese executive producer’, and you’ve also been an actor, how did you first get involved in film?
WB: After many years as a professional athlete and coach, I was ready to move on to new challenges beyond sports. I have always loved movies and as a little girl, I used to daydream about stories and adventures. The creative aspects of the industry definitely appealed to me, because in sports you use your body and mind, but not your imagination.
Luckily, I was able to use my athletic skill to get into movies in Hong Kong. Jackie Chan discovered me and put me in some of his movies in the 80s.
As an actress though, I was never content. Maybe it’s the athlete in me, but I like to take control over my own destiny, and I do not like being bossed around. On set, I found there was one person who was constantly rushing around, informing people of time, managing resources and leading – that is the producer, the one in charge of everything. This was the job I wanted.
FB: You didn’t start out making movies, though. Why did it take so long to start that part of your journey?
WB: This is a question I often get asked. What many people outside China don’t appreciate is how new everything was to us back then. When we formed DMG in ‘93, China was just beginning to open and move to a modern economy. This was very evident as multinationals were coming in and China’s large enterprises were starting their rapid growth and more and more Chinese were moving into the ‘middle class’ and they were demanding more products.
The world of advertising that most Americans experience was completely foreign and unknown to the average Chinese person then.
The film industry was non-existent, so while we all [Bing and her partners] had the passion and ambition to make movies; it wasn’t really possible at that time. But marketing and advertising were creative industries that were present and growing fast, so we started by producing TV commercials, which are really just mini movies, and then grew from there.
FB: What changed? How did you know when the time was right to embark on a new business line?
WB: After years of cultivating and waiting, by the end of 2008 the moment had come. That year China reached 5,000 movie screens, which we had always considered a key tipping point for our plans. Our first feature film was “Founding of a Republic” with China Film Group. It was a big-budget, high production value telling of the early days of the People’s Republic timed to celebrate ‘modern’ China’s 60th birthday.
The film went on to become the top grossing domestic film of 2009 and is in the top 20 all-time in China.
Most importantly, it validated our strategy and approach, proved that we could make a successful film and cemented our relations with the government.
FB: What’s the biggest challenge working in Hollywood as a Chinese woman?
WB: Working in Hollywood is both a challenge and a great thrill. It is where so much magic happens and it’s a dream fulfilled to be able to do what we’re doing there. Cultural differences obviously are a challenge, but those can be overcome. When we were making ‘Iron Man 3’, we spent a lot of time and work helping them [Disney] understand the China market and our vision for adding Chinese elements to make it extra appealing to the Chinese audiences. In the end, it was worth it as the movie has achieved amazing success in China and around the world.
I have always loved a challenge and in fact work better when it’s tough. I’m just that kind of person who never, ever gives up.
FB: You were a champion athlete and a coach, how valuable was your sports experience when it comes to running your own business? How different is it being a company president?
WB: Actually, it’s not too different. You have to keep your goals in mind and make sure that your team is equally focused. Distractions lead to defeat. Motivation is also important to both. I make it a priority every day to find ways to motivate, encourage and push our DMG team to be their best.
FB: I understand charity is very important to you, tell us about the causes that motivate you to act?
WB: My personal passion is helping children. Through projects like the DMG Hope School in Shandong that I set up with Dan and Peter to provide quality education and housing for underprivileged kids. Many in the West think that China is so rich, why help them? But they overlook the large rural population that is still poor and without access to the best schools or housing.
I especially want to see young girls get all the opportunities they deserve to reach their dreams and explore their potential.
FB: Like many industries Hollywood is slowly getting more women behind the camera, but in the executive suite is it still a boy’s club? And what about in China?
WB: I think the landscape is changing in Hollywood and more women are taking up positions of power and influence. Look at the recent elections of Amy Pascal and Nancy Utley to the Academy Board of Governors, that’s a huge step forward. Personally, I think we need more women in charge in every industry and in every country.
As for China, our film industry is so young, six years or so, yet we are within eight years of knocking the US out of its century-long #1 spot.
That kind of accelerated growth does leave gaps in process, infrastructure and talent. But I’m proud of our growth and accomplishments so far, for DMG, for our industry and for China.
FB: You have found great success in three demanding and highly competitive areas – entertainment, sports and China. Any advice you’d give a young woman, Chinese or Western, who is starting out in her career?
WB: Be frank and honest! Only by sticking to the truth can you do things well. And what you decide to do well should be to follow your dreams. I’ve never understood people who have a dream but do nothing to make it real.
Sometimes you have to remind yourself that it’s okay to go for your dreams and not let fear hold you back.
Having started training at a very young age for gymnastics, which is a particularly demanding and difficult training, I learned early on to push through fear. Learning that young has helped me a lot over the years because once you begin on your journey, you must stick with it!
FB: You’ve had a varied career – athlete, coach, actress, entrepreneur and movie producer – what’s next? Or is there anything you still want to achieve?
I am living my dream right now. I just came back from being on location with Johnny Depp – it was an amazing experience; he’s very polite and sweet and so focused on his work.
So I plan to keep doing what I’m doing - running DMG as president, working as a Hollywood executive producer, and serving as a cultural ambassador for China – these are all very meaningful.
If you have given everything and tried your best to achieve your goal, then the result doesn’t really matter. Because what you’ve gotten from this process is growing up. I see my greatest accomplishments as being the difficulties I’ve gone through. Every success you have today came from the hardships you went through yesterday.
Faith is a senior branding executive in Beijing with 17 years international experience managing global public relations programs for leading brands in the United States, China and Asia Pacific. She also sits on the advisory board of Girls in Tech China. Faith has deep experience in developing creative, results-driven campaigns for emerging and mature markets through consumer and channel marketing, traditional and social media, experiential branding and executive thought leadership. Faith has held positions as general manager of Fleishman Hillard, regional technology practice director of Hill & Knowlton and global communications director for Dell Consumer, Small & Medium Business. In 2010, Faith created the Dell Women Entrepreneur Network.
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