From a Movie Festival Volunteer to a Film Producer
— An Interview with Yang Cheng, the Film Producer

It is a pleasant surprise that “Have A Nice Day”, an animated feature film, entered the main competition of the 67th Berlin International Film Festival and had its world premiere on the evening of February 17, 2017, local time. The film’s producer, Yang Cheng, has submitted relevant materials of “Ghost in the Mountains” to the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) for venture investment program in 2015, and this film will have its world premiere through the panorama section of this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. During the film festival, Yang Cheng accepted an exclusive interview with the Chinese Film Market, sharing his feelings and experiences of participating in HK HAK venture investment program, producing “Have A Nice Day” and being an producer.

Yang Cheng graduated from Beijing Film Academy in 2007, obtaining a Master’s Degree in Literature. Later, he has served as General Manager and Producer of Heaven Pictures (Beijing) Culture & Media Co., Ltd. (Heaven Pictures) and Curator of China Independent Film Festival (CIFF). He has served as the producer of “Fly With The Crane” (directed by Li Ruijun in 2012), “Emperor Visits The Hell” (directed by Li Luo in 2012), “River Road” (directed by Li Ruijun in 2014) and “My Original Dream” (directed by Hao Jie in 2015).


From a Movie Festival Volunteer to a Film Producer

CFM: What have you experienced during your growing from a movie festival volunteer to an artistic producer?

Yang Cheng: I studied journalism as an undergraduate. In my sophomore year, I began to like watching films. I found films fascinating and was surprised that there were so many types of them. I had poor academic performance at that time, so I felt like changing the major to study films. I wanted to watch films as much as possible. I couldn’t afford watching films at cinemas then, so I went to some domestic film festivals to watch films. My teacher always told me which film festival I could go to and where I could watch films. I watched some films at film festivals and made some friends there. Then I entered Beijing Film Academy smoothly. I volunteered for some film festivals after that and thanks to the volunteer work, I watched more films.


CFM: The film festivals held in China then were mostly independent. Does it have some influence on your growing into an artistic producer?

Yang Cheng: It definitely played an important role in my self-development. In fact, I have broad interests in various film genres. In those years, because of the limits of age, conditions and resources as well as influence from people around me, I didn’t started with those commercial projects. Besides, I didn’t think I was able to handle them at that time. The production of commercial films requires more resources. Therefore, I preferred starting with projects within my power.

One more thing, let me tell you the reason why I chose to be a producer? It is quite important. When I found myself absorbed by films at the very beginning, I felt like shooting films. As I studied in Literature, I thought I should be a playwright; after I entered Beijing Film Academy, I found people all wanted to be direct films. They thought they knew film shooting and talked volubly. I found it absurd. Thus I often asked myself why I wanted to shoot films? Where did the thought derive from? What exactly did I want? Then I found the thought blind, as I didn’t have any good reason to be a director. I just liked watching films and wanted to make films, which did not mean I needed to be a director. To many people, films are made by directors. I don’t think so. After thinking it over, I didn’t feel any impulse to create. In fact, I wanted to be neither a director nor a playwright. Because at least there was nothing I must express with the help of movie language. I had things to express, but there was no need creating for the sake of creation. This is how I had my introspection and how I changed my mind at that time.

Later, as I have made friends with many directors, I found they seemed to need producers very much. Also, I gradually had a better understanding of the value of producers. I found the work interesting and believed it could give me a sense of achievement. It is demanding in a person’s comprehensive quality and is very challenging.

I used to be introverted, so I felt like doing something challenging. In my mind, sitting down for composition was not challenging enough. A producer needs to take into account all aspects of a project for general control. He needs to make contact with many people who are involved in composition, operation or commerce. This job includes a variety of things and is surely a big challenge to me. I told myself to give it a try.

So I became a producer. First, I had a love for the job; second, most of friends around me preferred to shoot art films. Such films cost less and were easy to operate. In fact I was better at such projects in those years.


CFM: Would you please introduce some of projects you have done at that time? Is “Fly With The Crane” directed by Li Ruijun your first chance to serve as a producer?

Yang Cheng: Yes. But I didn’t participate in the project from the very beginning. Actually I was in halfway and the film was nearly done. So I was mainly responsible for financing and promotion at following stages. The second chance came with “Don’t Expect Praises”. Like the first project, I only took over part of the job. When “River Road” was in production, I did more work compared to the first two projects. I almost worked throughout the whole film making. Then I served as producer of “My Original Dream”, which was directed by Hao Jie. That project brought about a large amount of work, and I have done my work with depth.


Participation in HK HAF Venture Investment Program 

CFM: Do you have any mature experience to share after making so many films? How does venture investment on various platforms contribute to your project?

Yang Cheng: I think the key to success lies in one’s judgment on a project. Usually, I read stories and scripts at first. Then I talk to directors. I think venture investment provides a very professional platform. I take part in such projects as much as possible.

However, my past experience enables me to come to a conclusion that one should take a second thought before participating in venture investment projects. I only seek venture investment with a project which I believe is good and can be finally finished. Some projects may seem good when they are only thoughts. Yet if you don’t ponder thoroughly, you may not get the finished film. If you apply for venture investment with a project you are uncertain about, the project may luckily enter the competition and you may get the chance to recommend it to people and talk with them, while actually your efforts are in vain and even counterproductive, for your project is not ready enough for further discussion. However, you have already been there and shown your project. Thus you have to recommend it anyway. That’s why I think one should make his decision with caution in this regard.

CFM: You have brought your “Ghost in the Mountains” project to HK HAF in 2015. Do you think this platform helps you a lot?

Yang Cheng: Yes, it is quite helpful. Having a project shown at HAF means the kick-off of the project at a high starting point. A film project can enter HAF only after selection. If it is selected for venture investment program, it must have some foundation, and the project will benefit from the participation at subsequent stages. Now HAF pays close attention to us and helps us a lot in project promotion. Generally speaking, HAF is a good venture investment platform.


CFM: What is the most substantial and specific help it has offered you?

Yang Cheng: The most specific help it has offered me is to provide a node for the project. It is like you beat a gong, meaning the film is switched on and you have to make preparations from then on. You must ponder over each and every details. For example, how much money do we have? When is the film going to be shot? And what shall the finished film be like? You have to think over everything thoroughly, because you need to submit relevant materials of the project. Usually we do not revise art films at late stages of production. Participating in venture investment program adds a work rhythm to the project. You need to have a clear mind. When you are on the platform, you talk with people of various kinds, some from film festivals and some from film companies. During your talk with them, your mind will be clearer as to what the film shall be like. HAF has its standards in inviting investors and producers. It needs to know what those companies have done and whether they are professional.


CFM: Will you attend HAF this year?

Yang Cheng: Yes, I will attend HAF as an investor to inspect some projects. Choosing projects as an investor involves my personal standards and orientation of my company. Currently, I prefer some interesting low-budget films with individuality and style. I look for films with distinct stories and styles, which shall have some potential both commercially and artistically. In fact, you can sometimes find such projects although they are few in number. All producers consider all films or projects as half-done products or unprocessed jade, which shall have potential so that you can add to its value in the further. One project may turn out to be different if it is produced by different companies.


Full of Confidence in “Have A Nice Day” 

CFM: What let you cooperate with the director of “Have A Nice Day”?

Yang Cheng: First of all, I have known the director for many years. I made his acquaintance in Nanjing, and I have watched his first film, “Piercing I”. I might be one of the first audience watching that film, and I liked it very much. Later, I started my work as a producer. He happened to have a new project stated. I was then at Heaven Pictures, so I came into contract with the project. At that time, I decided to let the company to participate in this project. Later, when I quit, I brought the project to my new company. Yet nobody in the company was suitable for this project. Finally I started my own company and decided to work on the project by ourselves. This is almost the whole of it. In general, I have been engaged in the project for over two years. As to the director, he has spent over three years on this project. Therefore, our cooperation is mainly based on the mutual trust between us. I like his films and we have a lot in common when talking about films.


CFM: What was the biggest challenge in producing this film?

Yang Cheng: We have encountered some frustrations and obstacles over the three years. But if we think back, it seems all difficulties are not worth mentioning at all and everything just moved forward naturally. It may be because, if you make a film in China and you want to make a good film, you come across a lot of difficulties. Thus I don’t think this project is much too challenging. The frustrations we have had are common to our peers, such as looking for investors, going through formalities in relevant departments, and something like this.


CFM: Which companies have invested in the film? Were they venture capital firms?

Yang Cheng: No. The investors were mainly companies in this industry. Our company was the majority shareholder, so I had a absolute say. We chose Angel Investment as our partner in the hope of establishing long-term cooperation with it.


CFM: The films you made before are all art films. Have you ever considered this animated feature film a big risk?

Yang Cheng: This animation is not like those commercial and industrial animations of Pixar Animation Studios or Walt Disney Pictures. Instead, it is a individualized film, so to speak. Although it is an animation, it is more like a type film, integrating both entertainment and art. Therefore, we didn’t encounter any big challenges in creation and production.


CFM: What’s your expectation towards the future market of “Have A Nice Day”?

Yang Cheng: We are confident about its market. It is something new after all. Foreigners can understand it. The story is interesting. The scenes are beautiful. It’s awesome! Our company will participate in its domestic release as the marketer and one of issuers. Also, we are looking forward to cooperating with a relatively larger company with more experience and resources. We are the main issuer. What’s more, we need to find a ideal period for film release. It is to be decided. Maybe in the second half of the year.

I think the film has large market potential among films with similar amount of cost, for it combines art and entertainment. It is close to the perfect film in my mind.


Think Highly of the Future of Art Films 

CFM: Yang Chao, the director of “Crosscurrent”, once said, the year of 2016 marked the first year when Chinese art films started flocking into cinemas. What’s your view on this?

Yang Cheng: It is indeed a good phenomenon, but we don’t know how long it will last. The whole environment is not that promising. It’s because film making in China is not only about making films, it is faced with many restrictions. We all hope everything will become better and better, so will the management departments, investors and creators. Our film market is not fully market-oriented. This is where the biggest problem lies.

My company does not specialize in the production of art films, which does not mean we don’t make art films. Besides, they bring me so much fun. Since you have enjoyed yourself here, you must pay the price. In another word, you live with something unpleasant. Don’t complain. Just accept objective conditions and deficiencies calmly.

CFM: Do you have any advice for young people who aspire to be an independent film producer in the future?

Yang Cheng: Independent film producers are different from independent producers. The former means to be a producer solely working on independent films; the latter means to work as a producer independently, namely, you do not work for big companies and you make films independently.

In fact, I am not an independent film producer, but I know a lot about this kind of people. Here are my advices. There are no secrets in making films. If you like the job, just do it. Learn more and widen your horizon. Learn from seniors as much as possible and take the responsibility for your films.

(Interviewed by Song Yiran; edited by Li Chenlu)

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