Intercontinental duo: CineAsia honors life achievement of Terry Lai and Rigo Jesu
“We do not have a motto per se,” explains Terry Lai, honorary chairman of Intercontinental Group Holding Limited (IGH), “but our philosophy has always been to be excellent within our moral and legal guidelines, and to always align our needs and wants with those we serve, whether it be the film producer or the movie viewer.”
Together with Rigo Jesu, her business partner since 1985 and current IGH advisor, Lai will be honored with the CineAsia Lifetime Achievement Award in Distribution. Even though their business, established in 1969 by Lai to produce and export Chinese films around the world, has significantly expanded to more than distribution alone, concurs Robert H. Sunshine, co-managing director of CineAsia. “Both Terry and Rigo have a long and acclaimed history,” he says, “that makes them a ‘tour de force’ in distribution, production, content creation, video, gaming and live performances.”
“Terry was in the right place at the right time,” Jesu notes about the early days. “She had already been acquiring international rights, dubbing and exporting locally made martial-arts films to countries like Fiji, Italy and Turkey, and when the martial-arts craze hit the world, she was ready with a whole catalog of films.”
If there were an official motto, being at the ready at any given time might very well be it. Over the years, Lai and Jesu have seen the industry change and they always reacted promptly. Intercontinental Film Distributors (HK) Ltd. grew to include video distribution, cinema operations and full-service advertising, all leading to the establishment of Intercontinental Group Holdings Ltd. in 1996. Today, IGH also has promotion services, videogame distribution, e-commerce and character products merchandising in its portfolio, which generates an annual turnover in the HK$600 million range (US$77.34 mil.) with the help of more than 400 employees.
“We very deeply realize that this award is deserved not by us,” Jesu says, sharing credit for this success, “but by our entire team at Intercontinental Film, many of whom have been with us since the very beginning and who supported us in building Intercontinental into the company it is today.” About receiving CineAsia honors, he feels that “as the old joke goes,” the award is given to the last man standing. “Although we have definitely been around long enough to see the industry change considerably, and to have seen many of the top positions to now be held by younger—in our case, much younger—executives, we feel it is a true honor for us to be awarded such a distinguished recognition.” Adds Lai, “We would like to thank all our friends in the industry, including the media, who worked with us, both in good times and in bad—and of course the team at Intercontinental. But most of all, we owe our sincerest thanks to the moviegoers of Hong Kong, who have supported our efforts all these years.”
Lai is hard-pressed to name a favorite amongst the many areas that IGH is engaged in. “How do you choose one favorite child from many? Impossible,” she admits. “Of course, we have had the longest relationship with film distribution and exhibition. It is these two businesses that have provided the financial basis for the development and growth of all Intercontinental’s other endeavors. However, it would be remiss of me not to say that some of our other business areas”—she mentions videogames and video distribution—“have had as great, if not greater, impact on our bottom line. But there is certainly something about sitting in one of our darkened cinemas, watching one of Intercontinental’s releases, with a great picture and great sound, feeling palpably the audience enjoyment, that just gives us truly a great feeling of accomplishment.”
Forty-four successful years in one territory is an amazing accomplishment indeed, not to mention excelling at so many aspects of the media and entertainment business. Yet it further speaks of the dynamic duo’s humility when they quantify this author’s suggestion. “I don’t think it is possible to say anyone ‘created’ the cinema business in Hong Kong,” Lai contends. “Yes, Intercontinental has been a leading provider of entertainment in almost all its formats, and in several cases has been a pioneer in some of those areas, such as television marketing, video sell-through, digital 3D, etc.. But we were building on those foundations that previous industry people laid. My hope is that those young people who take our place will equally improve upon, change and, where necessary, destroy and rebuild those policies, strategies and even edifices we have erected.”
While waiting for the next generation to create their models, is there anything Lai and Jesu would do right now about the way this industry works? “There is nothing we would wish to change, due to the danger of unforeseen consequences,” Jesu cautions. “But we would like to see the business become more globally directed. And it seems that the marketplace is beginning to make that move, which pleases us. After all, in our business, the only ultimate agent of change is the moviegoer.”
Those very moviegoers were instrumental in launching the exhibition side of IGH. To provide a guaranteed outlet for the films they acquired, especially foreign films after the craze for martial arts in the West subsided, Lai set up Multiplex Cinema Limited (MCL). Since 1982, MCL has expanded to five cinemas with 26 screens in Hong Kong.
“We have always been in the forefront of cinema innovation in its drive for excellence,” she enthuses. “MCL has recently been the leader in the digital and 3D revolution in Hong Kong exhibition; it has pioneered alternative product in cinemas, especially leading in the presentation of the only live broadcasts into cinemas of several performances by Japan’s and Korea’s hottest pop stars and groups. Additionally, MCL has also been the first circuit to install Shaw Sound’s ‘Infrasonic Sound’ into its seating in selected cinemas, allowing an even greater cinema experience for the moviegoer.”
Even greater things await on the Mainland. “Our primary goal at the moment is to ensure IGH’s survival and growth by expanding into China via exhibition,” Jesu confirms, “and ultimately distribution and production. For this very reason, we have welcomed our new majority shareholder, e-Sun Ltd., a publicly held company in Hong Kong and the majority shareholder of Media Asia, Hong Kong’s leading production studio. We believe that with the merging of our strengths, this expansion will proceed far more smoothly and successfully.”
“We had some policy differences with our previous shareholder partners,” Lai elaborates on why development slowed down after the first multiplex opened in the People’s Republic in 2006. “Japan’s Kadokawa Group was not keen on aggressive expansion in exhibition. However, with e-Sun Ltd. now, we have a mandate to expand exhibition in China and are beginning to execute plans which we have formulated.”
That the best laid plans do not always work out is something that Lai and Jesu have learned as well. “Some of our most exciting and fun moments were tied into our greatest nightmare moments as well,” Jesu explains. “When we were distributing The Last Emperor, we decided to have a gala premiere at one our favorite cinemas that we operated, The Palace Theatre. We had invited the Governor, and despite having checked the projectors several times before the screening, during the performance the projector suddenly decided to give out… Terry, who was sitting next to the Governor, raced up to the projector room—in high heels and evening dress—to meet up with me. I was in a tuxedo trying to help the projectionist rethread the reel on the spare projector. It took ten minutes, but everything went very well after that, and during the reception later everyone remarked on how fantastic the film was and how great it looked on the big screen in The Palace.”
Lai brings up another time when not just Intercontinental but all of Hong Kong was battling the elements. “About a year after we had purchased our first cinema, the Century Theatre, a typhoon of huge proportions hit Hong Kong. Located in a large housing estate on the sea front, tidal waves lashed over the retaining wall and all the way into the theatre hall, which had more than 1,700 seats. When we arrived as soon as the typhoon died down enough, we found the watchman fishing for shrimp and crabs in our cinema. The seats were totally submerged and the salt water had gotten into everything! However, after 21 days of nonstop, 24-hours-a-day working hard, we had a brand-new cinema up and running again. And it played to huge business!”
The premiere of Kiss of the Dragon is another one that they “can never forget,” she continues. Luc Besson, the producer, and star Jet Li were due to arrive by private plane when an early-morning typhoon forced them to land in Macao. “With gale-force winds still keeping everyone indoors, we decided to take a chance and bring them in from Macao and go ahead with the preparations for the premiere at 8.30 p.m. Besson, Li and entourage arrived at 7 p.m., the winds died down at 7.30 p.m., and typhoon signals were lowered by 8 p.m. But nobody had showed up yet except for all the media and we were ready to hold an ‘empty’ gala premiere. At 8.15 p.m., however, guests and the public began to arrive in droves. By 8.35 p.m., the hall at the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre Theatre was full and a really successful gala was held, to our great relief!”
Given the opportunity, Lai and Jesu would do it all over again, we are relieved to report. “Without hesitation,” Jesu confirms, “but probably with much more humility and trepidation! When you are young, you are fearless and always a trifle arrogant, sometimes more.”
Looking back, they take pride in their accomplishments. “There are many achievements in Hong Kong of which we are very proud.” Lai names “the localization of Disney animation to bring it from a non-starter to record-breaking success; the first digital and 3D installations on a circuit-wide basis; the first full-scale advertising of films on television.” In China as well, she points out that Intercontinental built the first cinema under the regulations of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) between Hong Kong and China. “However, probably the greatest achievement in our minds—because it benefitted the entire Hong Kong movie industry—was our successful leading-role participation in the effort to get the government moving to curb physical video piracy, which had the industry on its knees in the late ’90s.”
Jesu adds another accomplishment. In 1986, “Terry became a founding member and chairperson of the Hong Kong Motion Picture Industry Association, the umbrella society for all filmed entertainment associations. During this time, she was instrumental in coordinating new censorship laws, which established clear rating categories that are still being used today.”
What about tomorrow? How do our honorees see the future of filmed entertainment? Despite a lifetime of achievements indicating otherwise, “We do not, alas, have that particular crystal ball,” Terry Lai admits. “But if the trends continue, it seems to indicate that information—including entertainment—will be disseminated through vastly more systems to an increasingly tech-savvy audience. We think that potential of technology to provide wider, faster and more convenient access to a wider variety of culture/entertainment is marvelous… But, because this is not the world we live in, we are so content to let our young managers here at IGH take over from us. They are comfortable with that rapid change, we are not so much.”
Not surprisingly then, they do trust in the one constant in our great industry, Rigo Jesu assures. “We do believe that for a long time to come, audiences will continue to be enthralled by that special feeling of gathering together in a cinema. Perhaps in a greatly modified version of the ones of today, but still enjoying a great piece of entertainment, exactly as the filmmaker intended it to be shown and enjoyed!”
The author thanks June Wong for her assistance.
We asked Terry Lai and Rigo Jesu some questions about theatrical exhibition and distribution in Hong Kong.
How would you describe the state of theatrical exhibition in Hong Kong today?
“Exhibition is an extremely competitive business in Hong Kong. Most exhibitors are heavily squeezed by the landlords, as Hong Kong’s commercial real estate is at a record high and as expensive as anywhere else in the world, if not more so. This means that exhibitors have had to provide the finest cinema experience—comfortable seating, great sound and picture, new technology—to stay ahead of the competition, with very slim margins. Over the last five years, cinema attendance has not dropped, although ticket prices have risen to international levels. Hong Kong was the leader in Asia in adopting digital and 3D projection, and has experimented with several innovations such as interactive seating, Gold Class VIP rooms, etc., making the cinema-going experience in Hong Kong increasingly enjoyable.”
Who goes to the movies in Hong Kong?
“Mostly young people, whom at our age we classify as falling between 13 and 35.”
Which films work best? Which ones not so well? Is there a market for specialized product?
“Hong Kong, like everywhere else, loves its blockbusters, but a well-made film with a great story will always do well here, no matter its subject matter. But we do find films laden with Americana do not tend to perform here. Specialized and alternative product films are carving themselves an increasingly larger niche.”
How important are local films? How do U.S. and European films perform?
“Locally produced films always had and always will have a special place in Hong Kong filmgoing. Recently, because of the small home base of local films, they have largely diversified into co-productions with Mainland China, which has given filmmakers here access to more production funding as well as a wider audience. American films have steadily increased their market share in the last ten years, however, and now have the largest share of any one production country. European films have to be internationally accessible before they are well-received in Hong Kong, although some films, especially from the U.K., have done exceedingly well here.”
What are some of the big challenges to exhibition?
“The cost of cinemas is so high that there are not enough sites to cover all parts of Hong Kong. We are in danger of losing our relevance as a mass entertainment industry unless we are able to convince the government to give special zoning classifications to cinemas as an incentive for malls to add them into the mix as anchor tenants.”
How about opportunities?
“Because of the previously mentioned real estate cost, Hong Kong is not built out. There are 18 districts in Hong Kong and only a few of them have cinemas. Since cinema houses in Hong Kong rarely average more than 300 seats and most sites only have three to four auditoriums, there is a distinct lack of enough seats for the population. We think it is overbuilt only in certain districts. Even though geographically it is a small area, many of Hong Kong’s outlying districts have a larger population than most cities in the U.S.”
With a lifetime of living with movies, Film Journal International wanted to know what CineAsia’s “Intercontinental Duo” are enjoying the most.
Snacks: “Terry likes hot dogs and hot tea. Rigo likes popcorn and root beer!”
Movies: “Too many to pick the favorite. Terry’s taste runs the gamut from the 1950s tear-jerker All Mine to Give through Amadeus, The Last Emperor and Eight Below. Rigo’s taste is similar, with films like The Painted Veil, Como Agua Para Chocolate, The Life of Pi and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away coming to mind. However, both of us also love well-made, entertaining films like Die Hard, Transformers and this season’s Gravity.”
Theatres: “Our favorite movie theatre has to be, hands down, the Grand Cinema, which we built to our design together with our partners in the cinema, the Shaw Company.” The first film that Terry can remember seeing was shown at the old Liberty Theatre on Kowloon. Just like Rigo’s first theatrical showcase, it is gone now. As a boy, he watched cartoon matinees at the Princess Theatre. “My favorite cinema of old, which I attended many evenings during college, was an art-house cinema that specialized in Japanese martial-arts films. Many featured Toshiro Mifune as an expert swordsman. Was it called the La Brea Cinema? Memory fails!”
On that note, Rigo goes on to share his and Terry’s favorite movie theatre memory. “When we took over the Century Theatre, we inherited an ongoing staff dispute from the previous management. To give us the most trouble, the concessions staff and some ushers decided to quit on Chinese New Year’s Eve, which is the busiest time of the year for cinemas in Hong Kong. Well, all of us in the Intercontinental office went down to the cinema and took up their jobs. Terry handled ticketing and ushering—performed by our staff—and rushed to help me at the concessions counter during the busiest times. It was hectic, extremely tiring—as six of us were doing the jobs of twelve people—but truly one of the most exhilarating and satisfying five days of our lives.”
In 1969, Terry Lai and a partner began acquiring foreign rights to Chinese kung fu films. Dubbing them in English, they sold them overseas to great success. This led her to produce five films on her own. By the mid-’70s, she had built up a thriving business based on the export of Chinese films and the importing of European films for Hong Kong and Asia, well-positioning Intercontinental Film Distributers Ltd. (IFDL) when the martial-arts craze began to subside in the Western world.
Lai added a media and promotions section to her business. In 1983, that division was named Perfect Advertising and Production Company (PAPC). In the ensuing years, she acquired the rights to major independent productions such as The Last Emperor, the Rambo series, Basic Instinct and Die Hard with a Vengeance. Under her leadership, IFDL quickly became one of the leading film distributors in Hong Kong.
From 1992 to February 2011, IFDL was the sub-distributor for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Since 2006, IFDL has been awarded the rights to sub-distribute for Paramount Pictures International. Other than Hollywood and foreign films, IFDL also distributes many Hong Kong and Chinese productions, including the Chinese films produced by Shaw Brothers and TVB, and China’s leading film company, Huayi Brothers Pictures. Furthermore, the company obtained Hong Kong film distribution rights for Japanese animated films, including those by the renowned Hayao Miyazaki. Altogether, IFDL releases approximately 30 titles to the theatrical market each year, for a total of more than 1,000 films released to date.
To provide a guaranteed outlet for their acquired films, Lai set up Multiplex Cinema Limited (MCL), a comprehensive cinema development and operations business, in 1982. Since its inception, MCL has expanded to five cinemas with 26 screens in Hong Kong: MCL JP Cinema (in Causeway Bay with two screens), MCL Kornhill (in Kornhill with five screens), MCL Metro Cinema (in Tseung Kwan O with seven screens), MCL Telford Cinema (in Kowloon Bay with six screens), Star Cinema (in Tseung Kwan O with six screens), and The Grand Cinema (located at Elements in Tsim Sha Tsui with 12 screens), a joint-venture partnership with Shaw Group.
MCL also opened MCL Cinema City in the Shekou district of Shenzhen, China, in August 2006, the first to take advantage of the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement. In April 2010, MCL opened another cinema in Louhu, Shenzhen, and more cinema projects are expected in the future.
Rigo Jesu began his career in entertainment at Capital Artists Ltd., a subsidiary of TVB International, where he was promoted to the position of acting general manager in 1973. He grew the company’s presentation of major international live performances in Hong Kong as well as establishing a music publishing and recording division for local artists. In 1980, he left to form his own company, Jesu International Entertainment Limited. His business focused on organizing and promoting international shows, presenting in concert famed artists including Eric Clapton, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie.
Apart from running his own business, he also assisted IFDL, focusing mainly on the sourcing of foreign films and introducing them into Hong Kong. In 1985, he ceased the operation of his live entertainment business in order to become wholly devoted to the growth and development of IFDL and its parent company, Intercontinental Group Holdings Limited, as its managing director. His focus was to develop the group into a diversified entertainment organization, with businesses covering film and video distribution, computer game distribution and e-commerce, character products merchandising, advertising and promotion, and cinema operations.
In 1993, when Buena Vista International was looking for a local distributor in Hong Kong and Macau to sub-distribute their films theatrically, Rigo again assisted and won the distribution rights for IFDL. The company built up a mass market for Disney animation with local star talent dubbing and event marketing which extended to Disney’s Pixar animated films. In 2001, Jesu assisted IFDL to acquire a master license to reissue the classic animated feature library of Studio Ghibli, the number-one animation workshop in Japan. In 2006, he obtained the right to distribute films produced by Paramount and DreamWorks Animation Studios, and United International Pictures. From 2005 to 2011, Jesu was co-CEO of Intercontinental Group, and now serves as advisor.