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The missing link

Updated: 2013-02-22 17:36
By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)
The missing link

Actors and actresses such as Yan Ni, Sha Yi and Yao Chen (from top) became famous after roles in the TV series My Own Swordsman.

While everyone in showbiz wants to make hits, Hao Yaning goes one step further and he has replicated his successful productions across multiple platforms. Raymond Zhou reports.

In China, most renowned filmmakers come from one school, and likewise many of the founders of what are now major houses in the movie and television production business hail from one source - the advertising industry. This includes Huayi Brothers, Galloping Horse, Hairun, DMG and Beijing United Film, among others.

In China, private sector admen were the first to grasp the power of persuasion - in texts and images. They provided the missing link between media platforms, all State-owned, and the vast sea of consumers who were gasping for their first breath of the free market with its myriad choices of products and services.

"When I registered my advertising firm in 1985, it was the first of its kind in Beijing, and even the registry people did not know they were not supposed to grant us a business license," says Hao Yaning, president and chairman of Beijing United Film.

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After his license was later revoked, he opted for a joint venture and named it New Century. It was the first joint venture of this kind in the capital city, and, along with many big accounts, "made loads of money".

But Hao was not the first adman to dip his toe into showbiz. The idea came in 2003 during the SARS outbreak when he thought he should use a television drama to propagate medical knowledge. Thus The Health Express, a 20-episode comedy that Hao says was inspired by E.R. was born, though with a heavier emphasis on information and education.

However, the writer of the series complained he was not comfortable with the content because he does not possess enough knowledge about the healthcare industry. He wanted something more imaginative. Hao encouraged him: "I wanted a series that combined sitcom techniques with how chapters are divided in classic Chinese novels," explained Hao to Ning Caishen, who wrote My Own Swordsman and became a celebrity writer for the screen.

"I did not tell him from the get-go that we would need 80 episodes, it would have freaked him out. I had to gradually ask him to produce more scripts because the cost of producing TV dramas is prohibitively high unless there is a sufficient number of episodes," Hao says.

But when Ning Caishen first set foot on the mammoth set built for the comedy, which, unlike most US sitcoms includes a dozen oft-used scenes, he was touched. In 2006, the sitcom was aired. And it is still being broadcast somewhere in China. The funny thing is, as Hao revealed, the price for the show actually goes up with each repeat broadcast, which was unprecedented.

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"I was lucky I did not sell the rights all at once. I sold one-year broadcasting rights only, so I had the option to resell it every year."

He was not so lucky with Qiao Family Manor, a drama series that was first aired in the same year and won widespread plaudits. He sold all the rights, with a very thin profit margin.

It is an area that has eluded almost all Chinese entertainment tycoons and is where Hao truly shines. With a few exceptions, Chinese programming does not have an ancillary market. For movies, theatrical release is the final destination, and partly due to rampant piracy and partly because of the State monopoly of TV channels, sales of TV rights and discs produce very little income.

Due to such adverse conditions, Hao asked Ning Caishen to embed the seeds for spin-offs, prequels and sequels, and variations of the story, on other platforms. So, when the TV series turned out to be a major hit, Hao was able to extend his product line step by step. In 2010, he created the 108-episode animation series, which is about half the length of a live-action episode and incorporates many child-friendly details, such as pets.

In 2011, the movie version came out. It was actually a prequel that segued seamlessly into the television sitcom because "it was not an afterthought, but was in fact meticulously planned", in Hao's words.

A second part for the series is in the pipeline, but as many involved in the original have since become stars, it is unlikely they'll come back.

"It has to be something of a spin-off, something that is not a repeat of the original, something that people cannot brush away as the same old stuff, yet it keeps the spirit of the original," Hao maintains.

If a hit show can spawn more hit shows, it takes a creative mind, at least in China, to think beyond one's own product category. And Hao has taken My Own Swordsman to the much more lucrative territory of computer games. Since he had planned the structure of the story with such new venues in mind, it was fairly easy for him to license it to a games developing firm.

"The game was galvanized by the popularity of the TV show, but it is still being played online - after so many years," Hao says.

"I put in a total of 100-some million yuan ($15.9 million) into the Swordsman enterprise, and I have so far reaped about 10 times the revenue."

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