24 Jun 054: Filmmaker Spurs Hong Kong’s Comeback
Bizhan Tong, a young Hong Kong-based filmmaker discusses Hong Kong’s comeback, the shortage of young stars, and the need for more tax breaks.
In this podcast episode, we delve into the dynamic world of Hong Kong cinema and the factors shaping its future. Our guest, a young filmmaker, shares valuable insights on the industry’s current landscape. We explore the enduring presence of AI in screenwriting, the need for Hong Kong production incentives, and the conundrum of the lack of young stars.
See the key points below.
This is Caryn McCann, the host of the Asia Hollywood Greenlight podcast – a podcast about creating & distributing content for both Hollywood and Asia.
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Before I introduce today’s guest – I’d like to start out with a motivational quote to encourage our listeners to continue on their path to achieving their own green light. And today’s quote is from Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Every artist was first an amateur.”
A quick update on what I’m working on.
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I’m also launching a second membership website it’s called Christmas Movie Screenwriter. Recently I discovered the huge market for Christmas movies. Over 200 were made last year in the U.S. alone. You can sign up for the launch of our membership website at https://christmasmoviescreenwriter.com
You can also check out helpful blogs and tips about writing Christmas movies on our Facebook page which is https://www.facebook.com/ChristmasMovieScreenwriter/
Now here is the main segment.
Bizhan Tong is an award-winning producer, screenwriter, and director with an MBA and background in finance, working in fund management for Barclays. Tong is a commercially driven film producer with a keen interest in philanthropy, sitting on the boards of three charities across Hong Kong and the UK. Tong is the co-founder and CEO of Phoenix Waters Production, a UK production company, which he later expanded to Hong Kong. He won several awards for his feature directorial debut The Escort including Best Director in New York, in March 2023.
He partnered with Agog Films to launch Phoenix Waters Asia, producing content across Southeast Asia with international appeal. Tong’s core focus is Hong Kong with a vision to support the resurgence of its film industry and bring local stories to global audiences. His recent works include the crime series Forensic Psychologist, which he created and was the showrunner of. Tong’s upcoming projects include Hong Kong’s biggest zombie film in history, Chungking Mansions, and tech drama series. Crypto Keepers.
Well Bizhan, thank you for coming on the show today.
Thank you for having me. It’s good to be here.
Now, I told the audience a little bit about yourself. But please take a minute and tell us about yourself personally and your business.
Thank you. And yes, the focus for me, the entire reason why I moved to Hong Kong was can we support the resurgence of the Hong Kong entertainment industry. i.e. for the last 15 years, we’ve seen essentially, from an international standpoint, its decline. And to be honest, that does make sense. It shifted its attention to the mainland China market, it’s a huge demographic – I understand that.
At the same time has created a gap in the market. And so what’s occurred is people like myself people like, like, people around the world, we grew up watching Hong Kong cinema. We know the names of John Woo, Tsui Hark, Wong Kar Wai, and so forth. And we knew the names I mean, we always talk about Michelle Yeoh, Jackie Chan, and Donnie Yen. But it’s a case where we don’t at least from the international perspective, we’re unaware of who the talent is today. Who is the next generation of Hong Kong talent? Who is the next generation of filmmakers? What movies are being made that really resonated with international markets?
And so what I wanted to do was see what we can do within Hong Kong and of course, the wider Southeast Asia region and create content that appeals internationally. And to do that it’s about also working with the right people work both locally, but also internationally. So that’s what we’ve been doing with projects to date and upcoming projects as well.
Well, that’s that kind of answers my first question, but let me expand on my first question, which is, how do you hope to expand the market for Asian-themed content? And maybe I should say, Hong Kong-themed content? You obviously have a lot of films going you got some in development?
Are you reaching out to Western companies for distribution or bringing in Western actors or, or what is your technique to expand this market?
Oh, no, absolutely. I mean, I can’t share any details on this one yet. But we do have a project in development, which it’s in the advanced stages of development. We’ve been building a very impressive cast from the US, UK, and Hong Kong. So absolutely, the idea when we’re talking about expanding the market, is can we again, create content that appeals internationally? And so we’re in different areas of doing that – ways I should say.
So for example, we recently did Tape. Tape is a remake of a Richard Linklater film. Linklater happens to be someone who I greatly admire and respect. He has an influence on me as a filmmaker. And he’s a five-time Oscar nominee. And so we did this film with Linklater and Stephen Belber executive producing who is also the original writer. He’s currently a Netflix showrunner. He made a series called The Madness, which is competing made. It’s paused, because of the writers’ strike but to be resuming soon. He’s also a director in his own right.
So it was a collaboration, an international collaboration to do this film. Remake a movie that was already terrific. I mean, it won awards at Venice Film Festival. It played at the Toronto Film Festival and at Sundance. And then work with A list Hong Kong talent.
And the same is true for Forensic Psychologist – a drama series. So we developed it with people in the West, actually, including Debbie Mason, the co-founder of the UK’s biggest TV production company, Kudos. And then again, we filled it with an all-star Hong Kong cast. So it was really what can we do in Hong Kong to create content that appeals internationally?
And to do that – it was working with the right international content creators, who had experienced a track record to do it well. And then on the casting front – of course, absolutely. We were looking at projects, upcoming projects, whereby we are working with an international cast. So we’d have Hong Kong actors working with well-known British, American, and international stars.
And are those projects in Cantonese or English?
It’s a mixture of stuff. For example, Tape was in Cantonese. Forensic Psychologist was primarily a Cantonese language drama series, although a couple of episodes were in English.
And then the projects which are upcoming, a couple of them are in English. Say we depend on the concept. And we want to make sure that the language fits that.
Okay. Well, how do you find your scripts? And are you open to reading English language scripts?
Oh, yeah, I’m always reading English language scripts.
So yes, we always looking at them, identifying them in terms of does it appeal to what we’re looking for. Does it fit the international market? Does it also appeal locally? This is very important because we need the buy-in of the local industry. So it’s, it’s a case of reaching out or being reached out to by others. But also we have access to the top, essentially top-quality scripts from some of the biggest companies in the world, again, through our connections and our networks. So because of that the scripts we do receive are sometimes of a very high level.
We have strong people involved or we’re attached. And so that means that essentially, as a gatekeeper, as gatekeepers, it makes it simpler in identifying what works, you know, what would work for the production team, what would work for the international market?
Hong Kong’s Comeback: Aligning with Like-Minded Partners
And I should add, it’s not just myself, because I partnered with Guy Orlebar of Agog Films as you mentioned. But his primary focus is Japan. And so we’ve been looking at projects in Japan as well, that again, have a right hook that can support Japanese talents. That can support the industry there. But also, again, appeal internationally. Again, it’s about building bridges.
Right, right. And these are TV series and films?
Yeah. So thus far, we’ve done mostly movies. I mean, we did Forensic Psychologist as a series. We are developing Crypto Key as a series. We do have our series from third parties. But the vast majority of projects getting involved with so far have been movies.
And then let me ask you this, about technology. How do you see the film and television industry evolving in the coming years, especially with the popularity of chat GPT and other AI tools? Do you think this will diminish or increase opportunities for writers or for producers?
Hong Kong’s Comeback: The Problem with AI
It’s definitely a very sensitive subject right now. I mean, we have a WGA strike happening at the moment. There’s a lot of concern about AI taking writers’ jobs. And I do feel I understand that as I am a writer myself.
In my view, AI is here to stay. It’s again, technology progressing. At the same time, a framework is required to protect the rising communities like content creators. I always say as it stands right now – I’ve tested I’ve tried using chatGPT to see how it goes at working and writing stories as have my friends as actors and directors and so on. It is terrible.
You’re right. It’s not. There’s no soul., there’s no heart. There’s actually an episode of South Park, which has I think the first half written by Trey Parker. And the second half is ChatGPT writing it. It’s got all the ingredients of a South Park episode. But it’s so bizarre. And it’s eerie to watch. And it’s clearly not authentic.
So yeah, I believe AI can be used as a tool. It can enhance. it can benefit writers in that sense. It can speed things up. But in terms of taking over jobs, I don’t see that yet. Now, of course, writers are considering the future. Maybe AI will evolve to the extent that it can replicate the writing style of Paul Thomas Anderson, or Quentin Tarantino. I still don’t see the heart being there. At the very same time, I do believe that a better framework is needed.
So for example, if you are inputting all this data, all these scripts, and so on, how do we – because it was a copyrighted usually. How do we compensate the writer for that? I do think it has a role to play. I don’t think it will take jobs just yet. But I think it’s something that writers need to be concerned about, and really see how we can live with it. How can we work with that? Because I don’t see the studios stopping AI. So it’s really about trying to identify what works for all parties.
The genie is out of the bottle. Now, if you could magically solve two current problems, either micro or macro, what would they be?
Because I’m assuming we’re not talking about world peace?
Hong Kong’s Comeback: Tax Incentives
So I would say it’s really about, okay, I’ll speak to my experience, in the Hong Kong film industry. I think that we need to see more productions being shot here. A lot of productions and these are even local films are shot outside of Hong Kong. So for example, Malaysia, Thailand, mainland China and so on. So it might be cheaper to shoot there. And also there are incentives, tax rebates, and so on. So personally, I believe that there needs to be more support to incentivize both local and international producers to film in Hong Kong.
We need to do that also to help develop the industry here. And the best way to do that is to practice. It’s by actually having more productions shot here. So that means tax incentives. That means more loan financing options for producers. That means more of a push from the government to be making changes. And really to listen to what works outside of Hong Kong. Korea does it fantastically well. I mean, in 2012, we didn’t really talk about Korean TV. And now everyone talks about Korean dramas.
Japan is doing really well. Taiwan is moving upwards. Even Indonesia and Vietnam are looking like it’s moving up as too. And the US and UK do it phenomenally well. So it’s really, what can we do? What can we learn from them to do things well here in Hong Kong? And in doing so, that also should help with the second problem, which is the local talent. They are fantastic. I enjoy working with them phenomenally. At the same time, we still have not identified the next Michelle Yeoh. We still have not identified the next Jackie Chan.
I would maybe controversially argue that the youngest male actor who is commercially bankable is Louis Koo who is I think 51. And below that, we have Mirror. But when in terms of other actors in Hong Kong, we need to give them opportunities. We need to give them the star vehicles and develop more complex projects for them.
And so I mean that strongly that we need to give more support to the talent. And hopefully, build/export their brand value so that we can build this up. We can build it further because they are tremendously good and gifted actors and actresses here in Hong Kong. But I feel that there’s more that can be done to deliver value, which in turn actually helps the economy. So it’s a win-win for everyone.
Exactly. Now, this is a bit of an esoteric question. If you could do your career over again, what would you do differently?
I definitely – there are a few things I would 100% do differently. And one is working with the right people. So there are wonderful people who I’ve continued to work with.
As you progress in your career, you meet people and you find kindred spirits. Like Guy Orelbar, we ended up forming a partnership because we have the same aligned vision. But that’s not always the case. So for me, just like in your personal life, I think you should surround yourself with the right people. People who have that same vision. Who are aligned and they’re really focused on the success of the industry. And that hasn’t always been the case.
So I would definitely make selections in terms of who I would work with. To be more selective about whom I choose to partner with.
The other thing is I think that’s more transparent communication. I think in this industry, we always need to communicate what we’re doing. I don’t or at least in my past, I haven’t. There have been projects where I’ve kept things quiet, purposely. Working or letting a few people know, trying to be protective of that project. But I feel that the more transparent you are, the easier things can happen. It also makes it easier to expunge any rumors because people don’t know what’s going on. So yeah, those are the two things I would absolutely change (1) more transparency and (2) being more selective about your who you’re working with.
Okay. And now, let me ask you about when you’re looking at screenplays. If a producer or writer approaches you – how valuable is it for having a letter of interest? From a writer or from a producer, who has a script that has an LOI from an experienced director or actor? Would you put that script at the top of your scripts-to-read pile?
Attaching Talent with LOIs
LOIs definitely help. So if you have, for example, you have an LOI from a very experienced director then absolutely must be of strong value to have attracted that person in the first place. I will still read scripts without the LOIs. But it definitely makes things easier and makes things move faster.
So yeah, I definitely do place value in those LOIs. But again, it depends on who that is. So you can have an experienced director, but if their track record hasn’t been anything occurring in the last 10 years and so on, then it might be less meaningful than someone who’s less experienced and has a better script. So yeah, so LOI has a place definitely. But it’s not the be all, end all.
On one hand, you’re saying there’s not a lot of young talent coming up through Hong Kong. The most bankable star is Louis Koo.
In a previous podcast I was listening to you, you mentioned that you can go with an unknown cast if it’s like an ensemble or something. So the story is the star. How do you balance that with needing an “A” list star?
When Local Stars Are Not Known Abroad
Again, I need to be considerate or mindful of the local market. So you’d always need at least one name to help with that. And at the same time, from an international perspective, (foreign producers) they don’t know which, technically speaking, the vast majority of talent here. So what I’ve noticed a lot of (Hong Kong) actors and actresses, might have a very passionate fan base. But if they were in Walmart, for instance, no one would take a second glance. And I say that respectfully, because it’s not just Hong Kong, in Turkey, or Greece, and so on.
Casting Local Actors
But that also means that there are opportunities there to be casting unknowns. So I would say it’s a mixture. And this is a real conversation I once had. Whereby we were looking, at the cast for a project. The producer I was working with was saying to me, what, loo, there was some, a couple of really big Hong Kong actors. And he was saying that we don’t know who they are. So instead of putting the budget paying these fees (for Hong Kong stars), drop them, and we’re just cast a couple of unknown Asian Americans.
I regularly have a conversation where they’re suggesting just casting Asian Americans to play Hong Kongers. But I personally believe in a level of authenticity. If we’re having Hong Kong characters, I’d love the cast of Hong Konger.
But yes, emotional battles I sometimes have to have. Whereby in Hong Kong, they know their value. I know the value. I appreciate that. They are very talented actors. I really respect them. But when I’m speaking on the US side, or even the UK, they can’t justify casting them because they feel that they’re not known in that market.
So that’s definitely one of the things that I feel that we really need to export them so that we can again, how that next Michelle Yeoh. And that also means yes, locally, I have more choice in terms of I don’t need to fill it with stars. I can have some unknown actors, because to be honest, from the international perspective, they sometimes don’t see the difference.
On the bigger budget productions, I would argue with those, I do need more name actors. Even if they’re not known internationally. If you’re trying to make a globally appealing film, it’s always good to have more and more name cast.
HOST: CARYN Exactly. Now, what kind of script would you like to produce next year? Now? I know you’ve got a few in development, can you share anything about specific details like budget or range or caste or locations, or other elements?
So we’ve actually got a couple in the action range. So they’re actually quite varied.
I can’t talk too much about budgets. But I will say it’s notable. It’s not a blockbuster, but it’s definitely big for Hong Kong.
In terms of locations, I’m always looking at shooting, both locally and internationally. The projects, one of them is mostly Hong Kong, exactly, all entirely Hong Kong. The others are a combination of countries. So it’s both Hong Kong and the West.
Okay, now, here’s a trick question. What question did I not ask you that I should have?
Oh, advice to my younger self.
Okay. So what advice would you give to your younger self?
Or you could ask what I hope to accomplish this year. It’s actually more relevant to me right now.
Yes, my younger self would actually be the same as the lessons I’ve learned since then. It would be choosing the right people to work with. Always focus on your circle, your family, your friends, your business partners, and so forth. Make sure that they’re all aligned overseeing vision and accomplishing what you need to do.
And really focus on effective communication. And don’t be disheartened. Continue pushing forward, because you have people who will support you who will be aligned with you who will help you. So no matter how, again, quoting The Dark Knight, the night is darkest before the dawn but the dawn is coming.
Right. That’s, that’s, that’s great advice. Now, in conclusion, would you like to share any social media details or website links?
I tend to post sometimes on Instagram under Bizhan Tong. And I will say actually, one thing and there was another question. I’ll just put that out there, which is what are you trying to accomplish this? Yeah. So yeah, so last year was busy with filming Tape. It was busy filming completing Forensic Psychologist and so on and so forth. Now Forensic Psychologist made the official selection at the Festival Cinema in New York, playing in August. So the world premiere will be in New York for that show.
And so the key focus on what we’re trying to accomplish this year is really getting distribution around the world. So that audiences can see the show. Can witness the tremendous acting talents on display. And I’m really proud of that one. I’m really excited for people to watch Forensic Psychologist. I think Jeannie Chan, who’s the lead, and the tremendous ensemble, all give top-notch performances. And with respect to Tape, now that we’ve completed it, we just had a screening on Friday in Hong Kong.
So now, the next stage is, of course, distribution around the world. And again, I’m eager for people to watch it. To see our updated Richard Linklater film.
And like some people who’ve seen this, I’ve actually ended up watching the Linklater original to compare. Because we want to do a different approach. We didn’t want to replicate it. And because I thought, if I did the same thing, I’d be sitting in the shadow of someone who I think is one of the best filmmakers of all time.
So we wanted to go our own way, our own route for the same story. So yes, I’m excited to watch Tape and support it. And to watch Forensic Psychologist as well.
Host: Caryn: Great. Well, I will get it later. I’ll get those websites for Tape and for Forensic Psychologist and any other website URLs that you have. I’ll put those in the show notes. As well as Instagram and any websites that you would like the audience to keep track of you.
Well, Bizhan thank you for sharing your knowledge and your experience with our audience. Thank you for coming on the podcast, and we’ll see you at the premiere.
Thank you. See you soon.
See you soon
KEY POINTS: Revitalizing Hong Kong’s Global Potential
Bizhan mentioned AI’s impact on the industry: While AI may not currently replace jobs, writers should be aware of its presence and explore how to coexist with this technology.
Support for filming in Hong Kong: There is a need for more support and incentives to encourage both local and international producers to choose Hong Kong as a filming location.
Learning from successful international productions: Bizhan suggests studying successful international productions to gain insights and improve the filmmaking process in Hong Kong.
Surrounding oneself with like-minded individuals: It is crucial to align with people who share the same vision and are focused on the success of the industry.
TAKEAWAYS: Hong Kong’s Comeback
Bizhan highlights the struggle of developing local Hong Kong talent and exporting the brand overseas due to international producers favoring Asian-American actors and being unwilling to pay substantial fees to Hong Kong stars.
He offers insight on the positive impact tax incentives and rebates to foreign productions could have on Hong Kong actors. These include:
Boosting international collaborations: By offering tax incentives to foreign producers, the Hong Kong government can attract more international productions to the region. This would create opportunities for local Hong Kong actors to collaborate with renowned filmmakers and production companies from around the world, increasing their exposure and enhancing their chances of exporting their brand.
Showcasing Hong Kong talent on a global stage: With increased international collaborations, Hong Kong actors would have more opportunities to showcase their talent and skills in high-profile projects. This exposure can lead to recognition and visibility on a global scale, allowing them to establish their brand overseas and gain a wider fan base.
Catalyzing industry growth: By incentivizing foreign productions, the Hong Kong government can stimulate the growth of the local film industry. This growth can result in the establishment of better infrastructure, resources, and training programs, providing local actors with enhanced support and opportunities for skill development, ultimately improving their competitiveness in the international market.
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Asia-Hollywood Greenlight Podcast – Episode 54
Bizhan Tong – Hong Kong-based Producer, Director, and Writer
Host: Caryn McCann
Sister website Christmas Movie Screenwriter
Guest: Bizhan Tong
Linklater Film Tape