Actor / Producer Brian Yang highlights how great projects are a dime a dozen and what it takes to make it great.
Brian tells that’s it’s the person/relationship that will get the deal done. He admits why he doesn’t like WeChat and how never getting a “no” from a Chinese exec is really an opportunity.
Caryn McCann: Hi everybody. 大家好Dàjiā hǎo. This is the China Hollywood greenlight podcast episode number three.
This is Caryn McCann the host of the China Hollywood greenlight podcast, a podcast about creating and distributing content for both Hollywood and China. 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 anonymous, actually we don’t know who to attribute this to but the quote is “Forget all the reasons it won’t work and believe the one reason that it will.”
And now I would like to introduce today’s guest who is Brian Yang the actor-producer. He acted in many films, including The Man with the Iron Fists as well as the hit TV series Hawaii Five-0 he is known for promoting Asian stories and talent he has produced several TV series, films and of course the sports documentary Linsanity, about basketball star Jeremy Lin.
So, welcome Brian and thank you for coming on the show today.
Brian Yang: it’s great to be here Caryn, thank you for having me.
Caryn McCann: I gave the audience a little overview but why don’t you tell us more about yourself and your business.
Brian Yang: sure, well you did a great intro there. I work as both an actor and producer. I got into the business you know starting off in college as an actor and eventually got on to the other side of it. As I got older and wanted to continue to stay employed in this business.
It’s such a tough road but one of the things I have been able to carve out, I’ve kind of become a bridge person between China and Hollywood – the markets – two of the biggest movie markets in the world as you well know. And that happened as a result of while I’m Chinese American and so meaning I was born here in America but my parents originally were born in China raised in Taiwan. And so, I had a very strong connection back to my motherland if you will and I can speak Mandarin.
GO TO CHINA
So about ten years ago I went out to China and started just snooping around and one thing led to another. It was kind of before the rise of, you know the film industry was just starting to take off and now as we all know it’s just it’s all over the place that’s exploded and so fortunately for me being there kind of at the right place right time you know has been working out for me in terms of just sort of laying the groundwork for that. So, I’m based in the US but I go back to China quite often for projects, festivals, you know whatever I need to go there for.
And most of my work in fact as a producer has Chinese elements related to them not entirely. I still do a lot of things just purely, you know US or Western. But yeah, so I have a healthy mix of projects here there in between. Whatever keeps me gainfully employed.
Caryn McCann: Great, great. Well, maybe we can delve into a couple of those projects later. But first I want to have like a real basic beginning. You’re an actor and a producer. And I know there are no two days that are alike. But can you talk about two or three main tasks that you do on a typical day?
Brian Yang: Yea. So, you know working as a producer is it means a lot of development and waiting and meetings and you know calls and what have you. So, I spend a lot of time typical today although you know like you said no two days are alike.
But I find a lot of my days are filled with either, like I just said, interfacing you know whether it’s through WeChat, Skype calls, meetings in person when I’m in LA, New York, or in China at a festival. So a lot of just… a lot of, a lot of I really believe like business is about you know the Chinese word is guānxì (关系) which is a relationship in English. And so, the more you cultivate a relationship with a potential business partner or someone you even have been working with for a while the better I think that your outcome of your… of those relationships you know the fruits of your labor.
THE PERSON IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE PROJECT
Because I really believe people invest in people, the right companies, and people they invest in other people. They believe in you. And you know a great project is a dime a dozen. But it’s a person who comes in with that project who really wow’s them or becomes their friend or just really is someone they vibe with. I think that’s an important thing to keep in mind is, not to be overlooked you know. do a lot of relationship management through these meetings and just communication you know just updating people, following up, being responsive, being proactive. A good deal of my time is just cranking out emails, getting on calls all hours of the day. So, that’s one thing I think a good producer needs to be able to do.
And then and then, of course, there’s the other side of the development which would be just reading scripts, going over you know, I get a lot of pitches. Whether it’s there in the form of a deck or a script or a teaser video. I’m so backed up with different projects that you know that I either am working on, considering working on or people are pitching me.
A good deal my time goes towards just kind of going over projects and you know different stages of that. So yeah so it fills it up my days pretty quickly. As I said, I spend a lot of my time is doing that of course. There are lots of days where I’m off shooting something which is always nice or you know occupied doing something else but that’s you know it makes for a good bulk of my year.
Caryn McCann: What percentage of your time is divided between producing and acting
ACTORS WAIT FOR PROJECTS, PRODUCERS LAUNCH THEM
Brian Yang: I always say you know if I had to quantify it – and I don’t count the days – but you know it feels like maybe 3/4 of my time is producing and you know the rest is acting on various things. As an actor, you know, you wait for your opportunities because you’re usually reacting to an agent’s audition or getting cast in something and going off to work for a finite period of time.
ACTING & PRODUCING
But you know producing is it to me is a 365-day job because I’m always on as a producer. So, even when I am acting actually I produce too. In fact, I can think of numerous instances where I’m on set shooting something and in between takes or during lunch I’m doing a phone call about a project or reviewing a script or you know thinking about what as a producer what I need to do for the film. So, you know it’s not the best – I wouldn’t recommend that for everyone. But it’s just something I’ve gotten used to and am able to switch hats very-very quickly and easily. So, you know keeps me busy.
Caryn McCann: Yeah that sounds great. You are in San Francisco you say?
Brian Yang: I’m actually in Los Angeles.
Caryn McCann: I mean you do you live in San Francisco.
Brian Yang: No, I grew up in the Bay Area which is probably where that came from I was born in the Midwest but I was raised in the South Bay of Silicon Valley area, and then I went to school at Cal Berkeley so I have a strong association with the Bay Area which is why my production companies called for 408 Films which is a nod to the area code. And yeah but now I live in LA.
Caryn McCann: Okay so that would make meetings a little bit easier. But speaking of meetings, you obviously have a huge track record and people know you but how do you find business partners and how would you suggest our listeners find Chinese business partners
Brian Yang: Yeah. So well I have a couple of silent business partners with my 408 Films, you know production shingle. So, that’s just our internal company and those are people that I’ve known since high school. Honestly going all the way back to 408 again, we came together and just formed and basically set up an operation to be able to help finance and produce films and other forms of media.
Many might just label it movies these days because nowadays digital content is such a big part of the discussion. So as far as working with outside partners especially as it pertains to China, years ago when I went out there I just started from the bottom. I had a handful of business cards that my – I consider a mentor – this woman named Christine Choi in New York she’s actually uh on the faculty of Tisch for the school Film & Television Arts in New York. She had a good deal of experience in China and so she passed on her knowledge and contacts and I went out there and this was in and just started, like I said hustling, just pounding the pavement, getting coffees with people.
And I think out of all those meetings, one thing led to another. I got hired for this TV series that was shot in Shanghai and from there I just spent six months in China. And then I just started meeting more people because that’s just kind of the natural pattern of you know existing. And meeting people, going to film festivals, the Shanghai Film Festival is something I’ve been going to regularly for the last almost ten years.
You just can’t, you would have to be living under a rock to not be able to meet people especially when you’re present on the ground in China at film events, conferences, festivals, like the Hollywood China film society. There are so many things that set up nowadays for you to be able to meet people you know again it’s really… it’s all you have to do is put in an effort to show up and now that’s the entry point but as far as finding good partners well you know there’s no magic answer for that.
I think that’s just a matter of again going back to relationships like do you feel or you know is it a mutually beneficial situation where you get each other, they like your project, you like them vice-versa. I think that’s just a process of elimination. Unfortunately, you can spend a good deal of time meeting a lot of people that don’t end up resulting in anything. But you have to do your homework. You have to go through that in order to find the ones that do stick – that do become your partner.
It’s like dating. I mean look, that’s just how the world works. There’s no if it were easy to just call up you know the biggest film producers and directors in the world and say I want to work with you then more power to you. But if you’re starting to get into it I think you just have to dedicate yourself to spending time really cultivating in relationships either by being there and or if you’re not there there’s a lot of opportunities even in the West now for people interested in China to figure out who’s who.
Caryn McCann: Like that society, the Hollywood-China film society. Like that?
Brian Yang: Yeah that’s correct.
Caryn McCann: The China-Hollywood Society.
Brian Yang: I know in Los Angeles it’s the China Hollywood Society. Yeah, tonight and every year at AFM which is coming up in November there are lots of Chinese film executives in town. There are two conferences I know of right. There’s the one sponsored by the Asia Society which is a China-Hollywood-focused film conference. For that, I think it’s a one-day event but it’s like a whole day culminating with this huge dinner at night.
Then there’s another one that also concurrently runs around the same time which I can’t remember the name of right now. But there are so many things going on around Los Angeles and I’ve seen things in New York and even up in the Bay Area sometimes I’ll see things that happen that again it’s not… it’s all out there for the taking you just have to participate.
Caryn McCann: that Asia Society event you’re talking about is that in conjunction with the AFM or something separate?
THE ASIA SOCIETY CONFERENCE – DON’T MISS IT
Brian Yang: It’s separate. But they set it up specifically around the AFM film conference because they know so many people are in town and their attention is on that. So yeah I know it’s four or five years running now. And this year I’ve been getting emails to sign up again. I mean you know all the major players are in town every year for that. And it’s very easy to find and sign up for unless it sells out which inevitably does.
Caryn McCann: Okay everybody signs up quick. Now I know you talked a little bit just now about the challenge of finding a good partner. That is a good transition to my next question which is – what obstacle did you encounter on a past project and how did you overcome it and what did you learn?
Brian Yang: So, I think one of one of the challenges of really is not even just a specific project but you know certainly the last project as well is that before you are, when you’re not Steven Spielberg or you know Christopher Nolan or whatever sort of household name person. When you’re going to China and you’re trying to get a project off the ground or you’re trying to sort of impress them or get them to buy into or hire you or you know to agree to a working relationship with you it’s it takes a lot of work to be able to get to the other side. And what I mean by that is that the Chinese film industry is relatively young as far as the modern film industry is concerned.
China has obviously been making movies for generations and decades and you talk about I think they’re on the seventh or eighth generation of filmmakers. So, it’s not like film is new to China but I think as far as commercial films and films that were starting to see come out of China in the Hollywood-Chinese relationships that are a more relatively new thing in this specific space.
CHINA ASKS WESTERN PRODUCERS: WHO ARE YOU?
Chinese film executives and companies who are considering working with Western partners – the first thing they always want to know as – well who are you? Are you famous? Have you made anything of note? That just kind of how it goes. So, if you’re not a household name they’re often going to take a very reactive backseat approach to work with you. And they’ll have a hundred different excuses not to get back to you to consider your project. And one of the toughest things you’ll learn about China is like they never tell you no.
So, that’s why it’s always like you just… you’re in this state of like uncertainty ‘well they didn’t tell me no, they didn’t pass on my project so that must mean it is still possible so I’ll keep following up with them. And then they’ll keep saying ‘oh we’re sorry we’re getting around to it. And you know it’s just very frustrating in terms of, I’d rather just have a pass so I can know to put this to sleep and move on.
So, I think it again goes back to relationships, and also you know I’m not someone who likes to do this or really does it at all. But there has to be a way for you to kind of balance impressing them with what you’ve done and who you are and your accomplishments and not but not coming across as being too showy or pretentious if that makes sense.
You need to figure out a way to – and this is coming in cold – to be able to leverage what you’ve done, who you’ve worked with. Some people call it name-dropping or you know that whatever it is, like to be able to get their attention. And you know have it feel like you’re validated or legitimized and then for you to be able to take that opportunity and prove to them that you have the goods wherewithal and the ability to execute and deliver.
BELLS AND WHISTLES
I guess that’s kind of a long-winded answer. But like in terms of a challenge I think about working with China with Chinese film you know exactly those are companies it’s and again coming in totally cold, once you build up a track record I think you know that’s a different thing but if you’re coming in as a wild-card to get them to pay attention to you to agree to work with you, you know there needs to be a few bells and whistles around who you are. I think you’re, because your project again, they get a hundred projects a day pitched to them.
Everyone’s going to say mine stands out – finds that – well does yours have a recognizable talent attached to it or a big producer or director? Perhaps from the West, right those are things that they respond to and will get you to the next step and that’s you know that’s not for everyone. That’s definitely not for everyone, I understand.
PLAY THE GAME
I see all that people go there thinking that they’re going to conquer China or they want to work with Chinese film partners and then when they realize that you know this is not all that it’s cracked up to be they retract. And a lot of folks are already getting out of the game right now. I’ve noticed because they don’t have the stomach or you know they just don’t want to sort of play the game and abide by these so-called rules if you will. You know these rules aren’t written anywhere but it’s just it’s the Chinese chemistry in terms of working the west again are so driven by name and accomplishments that I think it’s that’s a reality for someone new coming out of that field so that’s something to keep in mind I think.
Caryn McCann: The key here would be for some of those folks who are not as established – just pair up with an established producer or get some talent attached. Otherwise, you’re just one of a hundred.
Brian Yang: Yeah I would say that that is definitely going to give you a leg up. And look it works that way in the West. But I think you know everyone wants to see who’s attached, what kind of talent or above the line names do you have on your thing. But in China again because they’re not as receptive to independent films – you know low-budget independent films – China is all about working with Hollywood on big films that have commercial value.
There’s a couple of small films will get under you know will slip in but those are really like those are the sort of the exceptions to the rule. If you will so even a so-called small independent film that you know you look at that the Jake Gyllenhaal boxing film (Southpaw) that came out a couple of years ago.
I mean that was funded by Wanda, right? But it still had Jake Gyllenhaal in it. They wanted it to be an Oscar contender and so it was that kind of independent film that’s going to get Chinese film partners to be excited about a Western film. So, that’s yeah that’s definitely the case still right now and I think you know for the foreseeable future. But if you have the right kind, you have to hit the checklist of everything that China is looking for. By all means, I think it’s totally a market that’s worth delving into.
Caryn McCann: So, when you say a checklist do you mean like a director, star, the right budget, the right genre?
Brain Yang: Yes, that’s right.
Caryn McCann: Yes, it’s a huge-huge challenge of course it’s… a lot of people are looking to China to make some relationships. But it’s hard to do. So, that brings me to my next question about pain points. If you could magically solve two pain points, what would they be?
Brian Yang: Well one would be to get rid of the quota rule. That would be fantastic. I’m sure a lot of folks in Hollywood would agree, 33 films, foreign imports a year to Chinese theatrical is a drop in the bucket. So, if you’re not one of the mega movies around and it’s not just Hollywood you know it’s like you got to remember 33 global foreign films. So, they’re taking the top films out of France, South America where all the different markets across Europe, all the different countries, other Asian nations.
THE DIGITAL MARKET
So, if you’re not one of these mega films or the box-office blockbuster of different markets, your ability to get one of those theatrical slots is severely limited. And so, of course, a lot of folks are focused on the digital market so there’s not as much of a restriction there. And it’s exciting times right now. This is why there’s still a lot of activity – people trying to figure out how to work with the iQiyi’s and the Youku’s and all the different digital domains of China. But I think from a theatrical standpoint, getting rid of that quota was lifted or expanded significantly which they’ve always talked about – that would be a huge relief. And then I guess gosh what other pain points can I say? I would, I guess if there was a way to try – I don’t know if you caught on to the WeChat system?
Caryn McCann: Yeah, I have it on my phone.
Brian Yang: Okay well it’s pretty much the only way to communicate and do business with people. Now people don’t use email. People – they’re very slow to use get back to you on email. They pretty much only use WeChat. And while I love WeChat because I think it’s the most intelligent app communication app there is on the planet. If you don’t already know, it combines Facebook, Twitter, FaceTime – all the different social media platforms including oh by the way also like Venmo and PayPal because you can pay people with it. Like all these things into one little app. It’s ridiculous how efficient it is.
I like it because so much information is driven through it – but it’s got such a stranglehold on your life and your communication with everyone that. You go to a conference or something and you exchange WeChats with everyone you know or everyone you meet. And you come across and a lot of times you don’t even know who you’re meeting and you’re just picking up all these contacts and then they start randomly messaging you. So, you have to be really diligent about it. You either have to be really smart and remember everyone or you write notes constantly about who this person was and what they do and how you could potentially work with them.
WeChat- A BLESSING OR A CURSE?
And so, I just feel like it’s both a blessing and a curse. I think WeChat is and I wish there was a way to either curtail that or…I don’t know how to necessarily describe it but, sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the amount of reliance we have on WeChat in terms of doing business with China. Because people send scripts, they send contracts, they send video teasers all through WeChat. And it’s something you just have to adjust to. And I’ve adjusted to it but a lot of times I still like to use good old-fashioned email.
Caryn McCann: Right.
Brian Yang: And it’s like I want to want to read something on a computer or watch something on the computer and not on this little thing. And so, you have to send it to yourself and then send it to your own email so you can get it back on the big screen. So anyway, it’s just extra steps you have to take. The film industry is driven by WeChat. And I, for the most part, am glad it is. But it’s also like I said – if there was a little bit of something I can tweak it – that would be it.
Caryn McCann: Okay great. Just to go back to pain point number one – you talked about the quota. What about doing a co-production
Brian Yang: Well yeah co-productions. So, to get under the quota which is obviously why a lot of American productions are trying to find Chinese business partners. I think that’s yes, I mean it’s an arms race. There are more than enough co-production pitches going around right now and I don’t think that should stop.
Because I think, number one everyone should pursue their dreams and aspirations. But I also think that we’re seeing so many co-production pitches that honestly they smell and feel like just land grabs because they’re just trying to – they’re like – oh it’s how I can turn my American story or whatever story and get into the distribution system by just adding this Chinese person or setting it in China. Or rewriting is just a little bit to be able to like fit into the quota.
So, it just I want to say like more than half of the projects that are out there are being pitched as co-productions – they are coming in with that approach. Everyone says – no you know ours is unique and authentic and this and that. And then you read the script and you’re like – well it’s clear all you did was change the name John Smith to like some Chinese surname and you know you switched it from New York to Shanghai. I think if you’re going to develop a co-production you really have to do it right. Even when you do develop it right, there’s no guarantee obviously because we have yet to see that and this is a whole other podcast you know, co-productions that have succeeded on a really wide level.
I mean there are films like Kung Fu Kid (The Karate Kid) and Looper and you know there’s a few others I can think of that are have done well at the box office and made money. But if you look at them they’re also really I don’t know they’re a co-production. A lot of people don’t really define those as true co-productions either. Looper just literally changed the setting from France to China. They got in under the co-production rule because they did some post in China. There are some things – on the again checklist – that give you that co-production status. A lot of times there’s nothing Chinese about the movie.
But if you shoot there a little bit and you use just enough resources, for example on the post-production side of things, you can get in under the rule. That’s fine and good and as a film producer, I can appreciate getting your film done how by whatever means necessary. But I also feel a lot of the co-productions we see there because now China is more interested in promoting the Chinese culture on screen that a lot of times the co-productions these scripts and stories come in not on the right foot. So yes, utilize that for what it’s worth because it’s out there. But go into it with good intentions. That’s my message.
Caryn McCann: it’s got to be a real co-production, not a fake co-production.
Brian Yang: Right. That’s right.
Caryn McCann: Now I know you said earlier that you get a lot of pitches and you’ve got a lot of stuff in development. What sort of future projects are you looking for? Film, TV? Genre? The budget range? Story elements?
Brian Yang: I’m not closed off to anything. To be honest I sort of think of myself as a content producer as opposed to a film producer. Film producer sounds very specific. Obviously, I’ve done documentaries, I’ve done narratives, I’ve done digital, shorts. I am working on television ideas. Again, it just it runs the gamut genre-wise. I’m not married to any particular thing. I have kind of carved out of it I guess a little space in the sports genre if you will just because you know as you said you watched my work from Linsanity which was sort of what opened a lot of doors. From there I started getting phone calls about other sports-related content.
SPORTS FILMS – AN OPPORTUNITY?
Sports was actually a very underserved genre in the Chinese industry, Chinese film space because we’ve all seen Rocky and gosh the Mighty Ducks and all the other sorts of iconic sports films growing up in the West. But China’s that’s a relatively untapped space. China is again is evolving as a film industry. They have started to put out a call for sports stories and that is a particular area of interest for me just because I like sports and I really gravitate to those subjects.
But again, I’m not, I don’t have a mandate that says I can’t look at sci-fi, I can’t look at the action. I can’t look at drama or comedy or all of the above. So, I think just budget-wise it doesn’t really matter either. Obviously the bigger the budget the longer it will take usually but that’s not necessarily a hard and fast rule either because with the right elements, you know if you bring me an English star or you know a script that’s so bulletproof I just got so many things going right for it. It can get fast-tracked and so that’s something I look for as well.
So, I’m not cornering myself into one area or the other. I welcome everything. I just hope it’s obvious it’s good and again comes from the right place. Also, I am stretched so I will say that I get a lot of submissions or introductions to people and there’s not enough time in a day. I always say I wish there are more hours in a day or three more of me. Because I’m an independent film producer and I see why there are companies with fifty employees. It’s just that’s not where I’m at right now. Maybe one day, we’ll see. But for right now I’m keeping it tight and I’ve got a lot of things on my plate. But I’m always considering new things that make sense we go from there.
Caryn McCann: My next question you sort of already gave us a hint is what do you think the Chinese studios are looking for? You sort of put a seed in our audiences’ heads when you said there could be a new market out there for sports films. You have such good guānxì (关系) with the Chinese studios – have they let you know of any projects they hope to find?
Brian Yang: Well yeah you know just kind of – through my travels and communication – I was just at the Shanghai Film Festival in June. And every day I’m WeChatting with people back there. There’s a call out for not only sports but I think sci-fi is actually also a hot and heavy genre that they’re looking for. I think that this is not something that I necessarily needed to hear from anyone in particular because President Xi Jinping actually made a proclamation after the success of Dangal.
I don’t know if you know this Indian film that caught the nation by storm this year. It’s a story about two sister wrestlers from India whose father trained them into Olympic wrestlers. That film went gangbusters in China. And then after that everyone said we need to make more stories like this including the president. And it wasn’t necessarily a wrestling story that they’re saying we want to emulate but they’re saying these sorts of feel-good underdogs zero-to-hero female empowerment stories right.
Like the themes of that movie, I think that resonates with a universal audience including a Chinese audience. Those are stories that they want to see. That was an interesting case and the fact that it can be labeled a sports film was also obviously fed into that whole idea. S I think that the only things right now I would say are not in demand is because, and because they don’t, they just don’t work in China because of the restrictions are like horror films, slasher films and I mean other than that like obviously westerns don’t work in China. But anything else I think as long as it’s a good story,
I think the success of Dangal and the call for sci-fi is because of trends that have been happening. China very much follows the trends and so once a movie hits and pops then they go ‘oh we want to do more of these’ which probably is no different than anywhere else on earth. But particularly in China because they have the power, the market everything right now. The attention is on China.
Everyone is like ‘okay well if that’s what’s working there – we’ve got to get our ducks in a row.’ So, I think sports, action, cars are definitely big things still. Because of the success of Fast & Furious (AKA Fast & Furious 8, AKA The Fate of the Furious), I heard a lot of car action ideas being percolating around China. I think anything goes as long as you fit into the parameters of what China is looking for or rather you can bring anything to the table. That’s my thought on it.
Caryn McCann: That’s great. That’s good to have those tips about films – the car action movie, the female empowerment movies. That gives the audience some ideas. Now just looking at your IMDB page – it is full and so you’ve had this amazing career, this amazing track record. But I’m going to ask anyway. If you could do your career over again what would you do if anything differently?
Brian Yang: Yeah no I would definitely have got into this much earlier. I would say I don’t regret anything I’ve done or how I’ve done since I started. But I really think you get a leg up when you start sooner than later. I always tell aspiring filmmakers that you’re going to fail. you know one out of a million is going to hit a home run out of the gates. But you’re going to fail a million times until you succeed. It’s just something we all have to go through. And the sooner you can start failing the sooner you will succeed. And failure is not to say you’re bad, it’s not to discourage.
I do think that this industry is really a marathon and not a sprint and so the more meetings you take the more projects you start the more experience you have, sooner or later you know again with the caveat that you have you’re a good person because again it’s all about guānxì (关系) and people’s relationships to you and liking you and wanting to help you.
And also, that you are on good projects. I mean these are just kind of basic foundational things that you need. If you have those going for you because you have good relationships and good projects don’t mean you’re going to like just succeed out of the gate. But I think over the course of time, it’s a numbers game and something will work, will stick the longer you go at it. So, it just goes, stands to reason that if you start sooner and you’re at this game longer the more the likelihood you will have of getting to where you really want to be.
Caryn McCann: That sort of answers my next question. Sorry, go ahead.
Brian Yang: No go ahead.
Caryn McCann: My next question is – what skills do you need to do this kind of producing? You sort of said – you know- persistence is a huge element.
KNOW HOW TO DELEGATE
Brian Yang: Yeah absolutely. I always say a good producer is a good people person. It’s kind of a no-brainer. Producing is not a trade you learn through school or anything academic. It’s really about, I think of it as a project manager in the corporate world. You have to know how to delegate, how to connect. Additionally, you better have a big network. I always find it amazing how to like – I don’t know how producers succeed or continuing this business when they say ‘I don’t know anyone like I can’t get anything done.
Well, yeah this is the world, that this is how it all operates. You have to know distributors, production companies and other producers. Find your audience. Be knowledgeable about pretty much A through Z – like everything about a movie. You let the director make the movie from a technical standpoint but you have to just be on top of it all, right. That’s what your job is.
So, that really comes out to again simply being someone who’s likable, relatable. Also, I think it’s important to give back and not just take. So be mindful of just being a good person. Like if someone invites you to their film or their fundraiser – you go and it’s not a second thought because you genuinely want to support each other. And so, the more good energy you put out into the world, the more you’re going to reap what you so. and so, I think that’s just the basics, that someone who has that personality is definitely more apt to be a successful producer.
I do think there are the writers who are like ‘no I don’t want to talk to anyone and the directors who are like ‘I just want to focus on my craft’ like ‘don’t put me in a cocktail room, I can’t talk to anyone.’ I get it and that’s fine. You just know your place and everything will be okay but I’m just saying I’m just speaking from my standpoint and if you really want to be able to bring your projects to life through your own means, then you have to be that person that puts that energy out there.
Caryn McCann: That’s great. Like a virtuous circle – like you were saying earlier. This next question, just got two more – this next question is a little bit tricky. What question did I not ask you that I should have?
Brian Yang: Gosh yeah that’s a good one. I mean I don’t know if this relates back to what we’ve already talked about but I would ask or I would have I guess we can go there. You didn’t ask me why the Great Wall didn’t work.
Caryn McCann: You want to give us a short answer?
Brian Yang: Yeah I sort of… I feel like I sort of touched on it which is why I’m asking you if you feel like I did too but–
Caryn McCann: Oh, you mean like the fake co-productions?
Brian Yang: Well yeah I mean look this was a true co-production in every sense of the checkbox.
Caryn McCann: Right. Except for the story.
Brian Yang: Well the story yeah. The story was a huge thing. That was a big problem and ultimately bit them in the butt. And so, it does go back to you know, content is king. which means the script has to be something the audiences believe in. So, these co-productions you know that had everything on paper going for it. You couldn’t have drawn up a better blueprint.
Except for the fact that the actual story was not something the audience bought into. I think it’s a good lesson. I think it’s something that everyone should take as a gift because it’s like, well it wasn’t on my dime. But we can see why it didn’t work and you can only improve from that okay? So, everyone needs to because, like I said, I encourage people to pursue their dreams and push their co-productions ideas out there. Though from every one of these examples that come before that don’t work or maybe to some degree do work, we have to ask ourselves – why that was and what can we learn from it?
So, I do think, I always say this, I’ll say it again – it’s the term ‘show business’ it’s not you know it’s not like ‘show-show’, you know. The word ‘business’ is as important as the word ‘show’. And so, you have to think about what works what you know from the standpoint of your bottom dollar and marketability. And just really sort of, especially in this day and age when there’s so much noise coming at you, as far as like what do I want to spend my time doing when I want to be entertained?
I need in order to invest two hours and bucks into a film – what is going to make me want to go see that? So, it’s got to be a great story in addition to having some marketable aspects to it. And so even at the highest level, whatever million-dollar budget level, getting the biggest stars in the world a huge A-list director, we saw what happened.
And so, I would really just sort of make sure people think not just twice but thoroughly a hundred times over when they’re trying to put their foot into that world, like why they’re doing this what it takes and how to get into a place where they want to be ultimately. So yeah, there’s a calculated side of this as unromantic as that sounds, but you know that’s the business side of it, the side that no one really enjoys but needs to be considered.
Caryn McCann: Exactly. My last question is this. What advice can you give those aspiring to tap into the Chinese market? and I know you’ve given a lot of advice to the whole interview but just to round it off.
WATCH CHINESE FILMS
Brian Yang: Yeah well I would say start by watching Chinese films. You’d be surprised how a lot of folks they just want to, they’re enamored with the size of the market, the money is coming out of China. But they don’t do anything to really understand the market other than just knowing there’s money and audience there, right? And so, if you don’t know the names of the players – meaning the companies, some of the executives or directors or talent that that’s coming out of China – if you’re not watching Chinese films on a regular basis – and it’s no excuse to say you’re America or live in Canada or whatever because these movies are available universally.
GO TO CHINA
There’s a ton of companies now bringing Chinese films into the West so you don’t have to bootleg them which obviously, I discourage. But you can go to a local theater, particularly in the major metropolitan cities, there are digital domains online that are streaming Chinese films. There’s even a television that you can buy, which I bought for my parents produced by LeVision that is like an Apple box but it’s a Chinese box. And so, in that box, you can get Chinese content and it’s all subtitled and everything. So, if you want to get into the market you’ve got to study the market and not just from a very superficial level. That’s why I would encourage people also to go there.
There’s nothing like being on the ground. If you’re trying to orchestrate a Chinese film from your family room in you know Des Moines Iowa, you know more power to you but you’ve got to get out there to meet people and then to really experience the culture. You don’t have to learn the language. I think that helps a great deal for sure, but I think if you find trusted business partners through building the relationship over time, a lot of folks over there speak English in the film industry, they understand that a lot of foreigners are interested in the market.
And they’re like I said, they never say no so you always got a shot. So, you go there and you’re going to meet a lot of folks and as long as you respect the system and the culture and really put in your time, I do think again it’s a marathon, then good things will start to happen. I and a lot of my sort of colleagues or friends that I know along the way, I see them grow over the years the more they dedicated, they remained in the Chinese film space, the more things are happening for them.
So, it’s very frustrating and overwhelming initially. But the more, again just the more time you put into it and so yeah I definitely think that if you’re very serious about it you should do any and all of those things. Go to the local film events too so you don’t have to start off spending thousands of dollars or moving your whole life over to China. But be diligent about it. Here at AFM, at the conferences, go to Shanghai, Beijing film festivals. Just immerse yourself. You know there are books out there now.
There’s every day, there are articles in the trades, they’re specific websites dedicated to Chinese film news. Those are the basic things but by and large, you just want to start meeting people and talking to people because you can’t exist in a vacuum. And think it your film’s going to get off the ground so you’ve got to you got to do all of those things. But also be proactive. And in terms of forming relationships with companies and people. So, it’s a big world, open market if you’ve got a thick skin – dive in.
Caryn McCann: Excellent advice. Now, in conclusion, do you want to plug any projects or social media handles our website links?
Brian Yang: Sure, so well I’ll start with the latter. My social handle almost for everything it is Briflys. So, you can find me on Twitter, Instagram. Yeah, those two are the big ones obviously. I’m also on Weibo but I don’t know if your followers will fall and find me there.
Caryn McCann: Mostly the ones in China.
THE NBA AND CHINA
Brian Yang: Yes, and then as far as projects are concerned, I’ve got a few things going on right now. So, where do I begin? There was a film called My Other Home that was a Chinese production that we filmed. That’s out right now. It was in theaters in China. and I think we’re working on the international distribution right now. So hopefully it’ll come out soon in the West somehow. And it’s a story about Stephon Marbury who is a former NBA basketball player out of New York who moved over to China and became a big deal over there and captures the hearts of the Beijing citizens for leading them to three straight championships. So again, sports-related story.
And then I’ve got another film actually this is not anything to do with China – it’s called I can I will I did. It’s a small independent drama that we shot in New York that’s on the festival circuit right now and playing across the country in America in different cities. It’s a story about and you might appreciate this, it’s a story about a wayward foster kid who finds Taekwondo to empower himself into becoming a better person.
Caryn McCann: Wow that is great.
Brian Yang: Yeah and then I’ve got a bunch of things in development, post-production including a film called Snakehead which has been a labor of love for us right now. This whole year we’ve been filming and we are in post right now. Just starting to putting the finishing touches on it and sending it to film festivals. So, we’ll see where that winds up. So, though those are films that I was involved on the producing side.
NEXT FILM COMING OUT
And then acting-wise I’ve got a couple fun things coming out. I’ve got a film, a Chinese, I don’t know if this is a true co-production because I actually wasn’t a producer on it. I was just hired as an actor. You would think I would know but when I’m not the producer. But it’s called The Jade Pendant. It’s opening in October I think. It’s going to be available in select theaters in the major markets is what I’m hearing.
But it’s certainly going digital. The Jade Pendant – it’s a story about the Chinese when they first come to America in the 1800s and work on the railroads. And that’s the backdrop. But it’s really a love story. And I have a fun role in it playing the best friend of the lead character. So, look for that in October. And then I’m also going to be in an episode of The Blacklist this fall.
Caryn McCann: Oh congratulations!
Brian Yang: Thank you. The second episode of the season. I have a fun scene with the character Dembe for anyone who watches the show. So yeah, like I said 75% producing 25% acting.
Caryn McCann: Wow great. Well, Brian, thank you so much for being on the podcast. You’ve given us a lot of information, some great tips, and really wonderful encouragement. So, I just want to say thank you for being here.
Brian Yang: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you so much, Caryn.
Caryn McCann: Okay, we’ll see you at the premiere you.
I’ve got three key points about my interview with Brian Yang and then I’ve got three takeaways.
3 Key Points
PEOPLE INVEST IN PEOPLE
Great projects are a dime a dozen – People invest in people. It’s the person who comes in with that project who is someone they connect with. You need to do a lot of relationship management. Get on calls, crank out emails, and follow up.
Regarding Meeting a Partner: You need to put yourself out there. Go to Festivals, mixers, and join the China-Hollywood Society. Just put in an effort to show up. Now finding a good partner is a challenge and there is no magic answer. It goes back to relationships. It’s a process of elimination. You need to spend a lot of time meeting people and it won’t work out for many of them. But there are more opportunities here in the west to meet Chinese partners than there were before.
WHO ARE YOU?
Chinese film execs who are considering a western partner – will ask themselves – who are you? Have you made anything of note? If you’re not a household name – they may take a backseat approach to work with you. Or they take a long time to get back to you. They never tell you no. It goes back to relationships. You have to balance impressing them with your accomplishments but not being too showy or pretentious.
How do you do that if you’re a newbie without a lot of credits to your name? You need to partner with an experienced producer or get some talent attached to your project.
Brian said you must get the Chinese exec’s attention with some bells and whistles on who you are and your project.
He said the Chinese were looking for recognizable talent from the west (not China). This includes a director or producer. Those are things they respond to.
Regarding what the Chinese studios are looking for sports dramas like Dangal. This could be an area of opportunity. Feel-good, underdog, and female empowerment stories are stories China wants to see.
WATCH CHINESE FILMS
Brian’s Advice: Watch Chinese films. Brian said westerners are enamored with the Chinese market. However, many don’t do anything to understand the market. Maybe you don’t know the names of players, company executives, directors, and talent that’s coming out of China. If you’re not watching Chinese films on regular basis – you won’t really understand the market.
Now on the Episodic side of this podcast – I’ll tell you about my week and my journey to getting my own greenlight on my film & TV projects. I was able to track down the L.A. address of a few Chinese studios in Los Angeles. I plan to contact them this week.
Later, I also heard from a director who has a relationship with a Chinese studio which was a pleasant surprise.
I’m setting up meetings for the AFM. I’m also working on an eBook for my website – the China Hollywood Greenlight. And I’m working with a web designer to alter the design of my website.
Lastly – this Brian Yang interview was done about 3 weeks ago. Brian contacted last week and set me up with A Chinese producer who is interested in being on my podcast. So, thank you again, Brian, for expanding my network.
And if you’d like to join the podcast or would like to recommend a guest – send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you for listening to my podcast. To show your support – go to iTunes, subscribe and leave a rating so other people can find this podcast. The more we work together – the more opportunities will be out there for everyone.
And I’ll see you at the premiere.F
See you soon! Yī huǐ jiàn 一会见!
China Hollywood Greenlight Podcast – Episode 03
Host: Caryn McCann
Guest: Brian Yang
408 Films: https://pro-labs.imdb.com/company/co0236057/
Film: Man With The Iron Fists
TV Series: Hawaii Five-0
Film: My Other Home
NBA player: Stephon Marbury
Film: I Can I Will I Did
Film: The Jade Pendant