Hong Kong Icon: Bill Kong finds success as a producer, distributor and exhibitor

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Every once in a while, a cinematic gem emerges out of Asia. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954) spring to mind, along with Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s cryptic fantasy drama Tropical Malady (2004), the first Asian movie ever to win the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes. Then, of course, there was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. Although it didn’t win, it bagged quite a few other prestigious awards, including a BAFTA, the Independent Spirit Award, Hong Kong Film Award and the Golden Horse Award. And in 2016, audiences in China flocked to theatres to watch Monster Hunt, the country’s highest-grossing film of all time. While it was dethroned only a year later by romantic fantasy-comedy The Mermaid, Monster Hunt nevertheless set in motion a mechanism that eventually would lead to China becoming the world’s largest film market, effectively overtaking North America.

Bill Kong, recipient of CineAsia 2018’s “Icon Award,” is the Hong Kong producer behind both Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Monster Hunt. Regarded as one of the most influential, prolific and successful film producers in Asia, he is currently working on a live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan, slated for release sometime in 2020 and starring a roster of the crème-de-la-crème of Chinese cinema, including Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Gong Li, Jason Scott Lee and Rosalind Chao. But as executive director of Hong Kong-based Edko Films Ltd., Kong has quite a few more shoes to fill than solely producing movies, as his companyis a film production, distribution and exhibition outfit all rolled into one. “We started out as an exhibitor in 1960, expanded into distribution in the 1970s, then into production in 1997,” he briefly sums up Edko Films’ timeline.

Kong’s father had opened a string of movie theatres in Hong Kong and also secured distribution contacts, Kong recounts. “I basically inherited the business from my father and am now running it in second generation.” Exhibition-wise, Edko Films has of course considerably expanded since Kong took over. Broadway Theatres in Hong Kong presently is the territory’s largest circuit, while Edko has also built a strong presence in Mainland China with its Palace Cinemas chain. The latter is considered one of China’s most upmarket circuits, putting great emphasis on luxuriously appointed auditoriums and the latest screening and audio technologies. The distribution business going hand-in-hand with the theatre operations, the company is of course not only distributing its own films but other Chinese and international movies. On the production side, Edko rather consistently generates between two and three films each year, having delivered approximately 100 titles since 1997. However, Kong himself has only been involved in some 60 of them as a producer. “My latest production was Monster Hunt 2, which was released in February 2018,” Kong says. He also reveals that his next film as producer is already in the pipeline. “It is going to be the next sequel in the Monster Hunt franchise, Monster Hunt 3,” he says, preferring to keep mum about a possible release date.

Edko Films’ success story notwithstanding, it isn’t all a walk in the park for Kong. While he naturally grew into his three-pronged role as a film producer, distributor and exhibitor (“I don’t know how it happened, it just did”),he also has to cope with numerous challenges.The rising cost of production and the fact that “Chinese movies are not capturing much of the Western box office” are two of his challenges as a producer.Then there is an issue on the distribution side, because “fewer and fewer films [are made] available to independent film distributors [like Edko Films],” the big studios preferring to handle their own distribution affairs.And last but not least, there“never are enough blockbusters available” for his circuits to draw in sufficient audience numbers, Kong discloses. “That causes diminishing box-office and ancillary revenues.”

His greatest strength “being a survivor,” Kong insists he is lucky to keep making movies.Asked what would he still like to achieve in order to complete the picture, his reply is rather cryptic. “I wish to make my next film the biggest and best of them all.” A subtle hint about Monster Hunt 3, perhaps? He also says his ambition is “to learn something new every day and become better and better.”That he certainly is on the right track is confirmed by the numerous awards Kong has earned over the years. And apparently those honors have had a miraculous side effect on him: “They made me feel younger and younger.” Now CineAsia’s Icon Award is in store for multi-talented Bill Kong. Somehow we have a hunch that it will make him feel younger still.