Executive Producer and Creative Director, Niall Phelan of Story Inc. Asia tells how to connect with Chinese partners. He also advises on when to walk away from a project.
He offers a simple yet effective way to connect with top producers (20:35). He talks about the importance of getting to know your partners. If you don’t have a joint bank account in terms of actual cash, then you’ve got it in terms of reputation.
Caryn McCann: This is the China Hollywood greenlight podcast episode number six.
This is Caryn McCann the host of the China Hollywood greenlight podcast. A podcast about creating and distributing content for both Hollywood and China. If you like the show, please go to iTunes, subscribe, and leave a rating, so other people can find the podcast. The more we work together, the more opportunities will be out there for everyone. Any links mentioned in the podcast can be found in the show notes at www.chinahollywoodgreenlight.com and look for podcast episode number six.
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 comes from John F. Kennedy. He said, “the Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word crisis, one brush stroke stands for danger, the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger but recognize the opportunity”.
Today’s guest is Niall Phelan of Story Inc. Asia. He is the Executive Producer and Creative Director. He has some great ideas about connecting with Chinese partners but also has advice on walking away from a project. Here is the interview.
Caryn McCann: Today’s guest is Niall Phelan – Executive Producer, Creative Director of Story Inc. Asia. Besides TV and film production his company also offers corporate video branded content and documentary production. It’ s production headquarters are in Hong Kong with rep offices in Beijing, Tokyo, Mumbai, Singapore and Sydney. Niall has worked in independent production as well as a stint for Fox he has written produced and directed hundreds of hours of TV and videos. He is also a media consultant and is based in Hong Kong. So, welcome Niall and thank you for coming on the show.
Niall Phelan: Nice to be on. Thank you very much for having me.
Caryn McCann: Now I gave the listeners a little overview of you. But why don’t you tell more about yourself, your business, and what brought you to Hong Kong.
Niall Phelan: Okay well I’ll start with sort of chronologically. I’ll start with what brought me to Hong Kong. I was basically working for an ad agency out of Dublin. And being in Dublin, Ireland, we weren’t you know, we weren’t in Chicago or New York or Paris or London. We weren’t defining the creative, we weren’t defining the strategy or anything like that. We were basically adapting stuff. So, we would take an IBM commercial out of New York and adapted it. So, it wasn’t super exciting. So, after a couple of years they basically offered me a role anywhere else and so I took Hong Kong. And one of these classic stories you hear in Hong Kong – you spent years in Hong Kong yourself – and so it’s one of those things I arrived and I met the head of the Channel V which is part of Fox. It’s like the MTV of Asia although MTV came back to Asia afterward and they offered me a job. and so, I took it was there for ten years working across different channels across Fox.
Caryn McCann: Wow.
Niall Phelan: So, that was basically so that was 10 years there. Then I did a couple years consulting to NatGeo, Sony, Turner television, different people and then I worked for a big production company APV across Asia for five years with a great bunch of people. And then I set up my own company with a couple of partners and we slowly, organically I’d like to say, slowly-slowly grown our presence across Asia with some of our corporate clients. And the kind of corporate clients is the kind of bloodline of the business. It, you know, brings in the profit. It allows us to make sure we’ve got the most important sort of working capital and incoming cash flow all the time. And that allows us then to develop TV series and to develop films as well.
Caryn McCann: Wow.
Niall Phelan: So, besides all of that I still do a bit of consulting having consulted for other companies. I still consult to Wanda out of China for their interest in things in Hong Kong and Singapore, and to Zhang Ziyi – the actress and to some of the ad agencies on particular pitches for particular projects where they feel they might need that you know, my little area of expertise to give them a bump you know.
Caryn McCann: Well that’s that sounds exciting.
Niall Phelan: Yeah-yeah it’s good. And so, I’ll tell you a little bit about the business. So, as I said we work with corporates. So, we’re working with banks from America, Merrill Lynch across Asia. We do probably, I don’t know, dozens and dozens of projects for them here. Same for AIA the leading insurance company over here and other clients – Architectural China Merchants one of the biggest companies in the world. And so, we do various types of products for them and products for them and then we do TV series like the cheesy titled Tycoon Talks. And we hopefully find out about the biggest business leaders in the region and a little bit of their lifestyles – dip into them at home life or them at play and things like that.
And so, I created the first series and that’s gone into a second series. And there’s talk of a third. And then we do documentaries like hardcore series documentaries on water issues or you know Orangutans in Borneo or you know stuff like that and then obviously, we do our features and our features take a lot longer to put together. They’re not concept stuff you know – Bruce Willis hanging from a window cleaner box off a certain building boom that sold. We really have to develop these projects quite a bit down the road in terms of a very finished script, packaging even financing to try and get things going because you can just say I want this star or even get Jackie Chan to say I’ll agree to do it because you could pay them a little bit upfront but you still need to put the whole package together I find to really get it moving.
Caryn McCann: Where were you getting those scripts, are you writing them yourself?
Niall Phelan: Yeah, I mean both, we basically develop them in-house and we basically get quite a few scripts from outside. Now the scripts we obviously like anyone who’s in the business once you’re on IMDB or you have a website and you’ve got a few credits and you start to get scripts from all over the place. We don’t – like a lot of the big firms – reject those out of hand and because we’re not in a situation where someone’s going to sue us and say that was my film you’ve turned in as a Star Wars. We don’t have to worry about that yet. And so, we try to be nice and leave the door open because that’s how we got going. But I would say very few of them come in from people we don’t know. It’s rare to find a script that we would be interested in that isn’t from somebody that we have been introduced to or somehow already developed a relationship with us.
Caryn McCann: it’s all about guanxi.
Niall Phelan: Yeah exactly. I mean that’s the thing. so, I don’t know if your audience knows that but it’s a difficult thing to explain. But maybe you can explain it will be interesting to see how you explain it now do your out of Asia and back in the states.
Caryn McCann: We’ll go through that as I ask you the questions. It will come out through your history.
Niall Phelan: okay.
Caryn McCann: Guanxi – just like networking – it’s who you know.
Niall Phelan: Yeah.
Caryn McCann: But one of my first questions is you know some of the people in the audience are established some of them are starting out – so what we like to ask is kind of tell us about your – I know today’s in this industry ours are similar, but if you could name two or three main tasks you do on a quote typical day what would those be?
Niall Phelan: I mean it’s a good question. I was thinking about this question the most because no two days really are the same. But I would say the critical part for me is the to-do list and I know that sounds extremely basic. But when you have clients you know when you have commercial clients who can pick up the phone and call you at any time and to them everything is urgent. Especially when you’re dealing with the top multinationals in any particular sector, they think what they’re doing is super busy and it is. It’s very easy to get distracted and to get the attention of the team pushed off in a different direction.
Or when you have a production, when you have something that’s in production or has a problem it’s very difficult to not focus all your attention on that. So really the to-do list is the most critical thing. And we have tried every app from you know our favorite one was Clear and that was on the Mac platform which they stopped supporting so well so we moved away from it. We’re back basically onto notes and a Yellow refill pad. But the to-do list, I would say if I had become a master of the to-do list earlier in life, I’d be a happier man but definitely the to-do list. And on a crazy day, we can update that on an hourly basis to make sure.
Caryn McCann: Wow
Niall Phelan: Oh, yes but we do come at it from a slightly different point of view. My brother who’s based out of Sydney – Paul who kind of heads up development for us as well as doing multiple other things – he’s making IMAX movies and things like that as well and he’s currently got a new TV series about to launch in Australia, – Ancient Australia. But he developed a particular thing having read up on astronauts, US astronauts, and it’s basically the “what can kill me next” list that they use that they used on the Apollo mission. So, it’s what could go like I need to eat, I need to exercise, I need to call home but there’s a potential leak in the toilets that could poison us all. That gets done first. And so, we use that all the time particularly in the preparation of projects. We look at what could kill us, what can kill the whole thing.
Caryn McCann: That’s great.
Niall Phelan: Obviously, we’re not expecting to get sucked into a vacuum but we could lose that creative you know that safe environment that we’re trying to create with the director and with the actors. And so, for us that’s that can be deadly when you use that’s safe space that everyone feels they can play at and you can only get there -we don’t know another way to get there – but just with deep preparation on that. And trying to foresee what problems can happen and get those out of the way before we get there. So, we’re big fans of fix-it in pre-production that’s kind of our motto.
Caryn McCann: one of the tasks you mentioned is you know stay on top of the to-do list, make sure all the projects are organized. What would be another task as far as when you’re developing a film or you’re finding projects?
Niall Phelan: yeah we’re in the process, we’re in all stages of production every day on multiple different projects. So, we are reading a brand-new script, probably not reading pages every single day but almost every day reading a brand-new script for the first time. And I can often tell – sometimes beautifully surprised or horribly disappointed after three, or ten, or fifteen pages and when you start to think my god this is it. You start to think; well how can we get this? And so, you start to think are we big enough to bring it in? Are we going to be able to package this up or should we try and pass this on or partner with somebody else so that somebody else can put it together. Or how do we extricate ourselves from this nicely and try and be helpful to this person and getting them to redevelop it or whatever else?
And so, we’re I think we’re always in development, we’re always in all the stages of production. So, we’re always networking. We’re always talking to investors, potential investors, talent, potential talent. And I don’t mean actors. We don’t really try to reject them but by talent, I mean crew and the creatives around that. So, we’re in all stages of that all the time which makes it fun because if you’re bored dealing with a commercial client or something you can always delve in and get on the phone with a writer who’s going to be super passionate about what they’ve just sent you. And so, you can get inspired again by talking to them, and then once your tank is full go back at some of the more mundane stuff again so it’s good.
Caryn McCann: You’re sort of leading into my next question which you sort of alluded to it and that is finding business partners. How do you find your business partners and how do you suggest the listeners find Chinese partners?
Niall Phelan: Yeah I mean this is a critical thing. And I think projects and businesses are defined and the… your destiny of your business is defined by how you do this. And we have made horrible decisions on that we have.
You know I’ve personally lost money and lost a lot of time partnering with the wrong people. And even now looking back on it, could I have seen they were the wrong people. I mean maybe they were the right people at the time and the chemistry changed or the reality of their life changed or their business or whatever. And so sometimes people have dramatic things happen in their life and they change focus and stuff. But I think a key thing for that and we’re doing this every day, is researching. And so, when we’re reading the trades, we’re reading the newspaper, when we’re going through social media, we’re constantly looking for trends that we can see – who were people that were going to be able to work with? Who are people that we can help? Who are people that we might be able to work with within five years? So, whether it’s something as simple as you hear Pinewood Studios is thinking of coming to Asia, coming to Malaysia. They’re the biggest studio system, the biggest studio owners in the world now. And there’s nothing for us to offer. Nothing for us to benefit from immediately. But later down the road there it turns out that we’ve met with them and there are some areas that we can work together.
So, we take a really long-term view of all of that. And everyone, as we try and get the interns to look at that. We try and get everyone to look at the long-term view. And so, we’re always looking for partners. Now how you decide who they are – well you definitely have to do due diligence. It’s much harder to do due diligence in China. And like if I was to a do due diligence on you or you to do it on me you – could pull up a traffic violation from the time I spent in Martha’s Vineyard twenty-something years ago. I could find the same on you. America is so transparent on a lot of those things. China isn’t. The web is obviously in a different language that’s the first thing and I don’t read Chinese. And as well the web starts a lot later and certainly a lot of things aren’t on it like that. So, it’s a lot harder to find things. And everyone is claiming to have a huge amount of money. There’s awful a lot of announcements in Variety and Hollywood Reporter of big deals that never happen but they helped push up a stock price or whatever else. So, for us, we haven’t really had any problems in China with partners there. Our problems have been within the unexpected places closer to home at a Hong Kong not because it’s Hong Kong – just because that’s where we’re doing more business on a day to day basis.
And so, we kind of sorry I’m getting a lot of emails here (computer beeps). I’ll see if I can somehow shut that off sorry. And so basically we come at it – I don’t know what analogy you use – but we’re big fans of analogies. And the analogy we use is – it’s kind of like dating. So, some people like to rush into the business you know you meet someone who has an idea, the talk of money – right let’s make it happen. And we’re much more slow-burning on well – what are their values and what are our values? And it’s taken a long time to learn that but that’s really important because we’ve had several projects that we’ve pulled ourselves out of and the project has gone on to be finished and distributed and people have made their returns on it and picked up awards and stuff like that. But for us, we had to get out because it didn’t work the way we wanted it to work or it was either sucking up too much time or it was too much heartbreak or we didn’t feel it was going in the direction that we wanted it to go in. So more and more we spend a lot more time talking to people about who they are. Trying to figure out who they are as people before we start trying to knit together any sort of deal.
Caryn McCann: So, that’s I guess what you would suggest to the listeners is you really have to meet with these people.
Niall Phelan: Yes.
Caryn McCann: You can’t just find them on the Internet.
Niall Phelan: No because at the end of the day like if you’re making it depending on how you do the deal – you’re basically going to set up a limited company with the person if you’re involved in a project you’re a producer, if you’re at the top level of something, putting it together you’re basically going to have a joint bank account at some point. And if you don’t have a joint bank account in terms of actual cash then you’ve got it in terms of reputation.
And so, you’re joining reputation with somebody else. We really want to make sure that we’re joined by like-minded people that have got similar values. And then also like we’re not as talented – I mean all the way along, I have personally met much more talented people than I am and will continue to, but the only thing I can say against that is that we’re not afraid of hard work. None of us are afraid of hard work. So, we will continue to rewrite something whether it’s a pitch or script or whatever else that needs to be done, a proposal you know we’ll keep rewriting and polishing it until we think it’s good enough to go out. And we will get feedback from allies and friends and all the rest of us. And so, for us, there are some people that are expecting things to happen easily and there are some people who are expecting them to happen quickly and there are some people who are expecting things to happen completely the way they want. And everything is a compromise.
And the film is an incredible magical result of hundreds and hundreds of compromises. So, for us we want to make sure we’re working with people that know how to compromise, that have a bit of a vision have a reality based on the way the market works and the market for that product. Because obviously, there’s a lot of noise about how Hollywood films work, how bigger Hollywood films work. We all have an idea of how Marvel or you know Bond and all these big huge tentpole films work and series work. But it’s very different when you’re in this more independent space and so you want to make sure that everyone on board understands the way it’s going to go.
Caryn McCann: You mentioned a little bit about you know everything is a compromise.
Niall Phelan: Yeah.
Caryn McCann: That sort of leads me to my next question. You alluded to it earlier about having obstacles on a past project. What was one of those obstacles and how did you overcome it and what did you learn?
Niall Phelan: Yeah good question and I think there’s a great Bob Dylan line that I can’t remember the line itself but it basically talks about you know staying committed to something because you’re committed to something. It’s the idea of continuing to cross the road because you’re halfway across. And really if you’re crossing the road that’s in the wrong direction, the sooner you turn around the better.
And sometimes in a partnership, by keeping somebody in a partnership, by keeping somebody in a project even though they don’t want to be there or it’s not beneficial to them or to you – the sooner you let people go the better.
And the analogy I bring it back to is personal relationships. You wouldn’t want to maintain a friendship with somebody that really doesn’t want to be your friend any longer. So why would you try and maintain a business relationship with them you know? So, for us that that’s the key thing. And on past projects – two particular projects – we were kind of – I was particularly blind to that, to seeing that somebody really wanted out of it.
And so, in the end, they’ll do a deal to get themselves out of a deal that perhaps hurts everyone else involved but really their motivation is just to get out of it. And if we’ve been a bit more open to that, we’d have seen that, giving them an easier option out in the first place. So, I think that’s the key thing. Not all projects are going to go the full distance. And if they’re not, you want to be aware of it. You want to be aware of the dynamics of the people involved because it’s a people business it’s all about people.
Caryn McCann: And especially allow them to save face.
Niall Phelan: Yes, exactly-exactly. Yeah good.
Caryn McCann: This is a hypothetical question. If you could magically solve two pain points, what would they be?
Niall Phelan: Well I’m going to go back to the last question if I can for one second because I kind of didn’t answer the whole thing about how to find partners. And so, I would say part of it is obvious, you know LinkedIn is good if you can filter the treasure from the trash. Twitter is good for the same thing. Twitter is useful you can connect with certain well-known big producers – some of the biggest producers in the region are online. So, what I’m trying to befriend them, you know, and start with hi, how are you? Blah blah blah, you can at least see what they’re interested in. You can see what they’re retweeting, what they’re liking. You can see what the story is. So, you can get a better idea of who they are and if you have any similarities and interests.
So, when you are developing a story about a dog that can talk, well you know out of the producers you know – these three are crazy about dogs. So, you’ve got a much better chance of talking to them than somebody else. So again, it’s back to getting to know them. But obviously attending film markets, you know Shanghai market, you know, markets for documentaries like the Asian Side of the Doc in Bangkok and so on. Those are sorts of things that definitely you can get to meet people face to face. And as long as you understand that they’re extremely busy and what they’re trying to do is either buy and sell and if you’re not in that moment for them, then you know to meet them or get out of their way as fast as you can, so they can move on to those things.
But we have certainly taken, we pick certain people we like and we would take them out for dinner or take them out for a nice lunch and not push them on this and just solely try to get to know those people. That’s really it. Yeah so to move on to your other question which was–
Caryn McCann: That’s a good theme that I see, excuse me, running through is that you know you really want to get to know your partners. You want to spend time one-on-one. So, that’s a recurring theme and so thank you for that. That’s good advice to the listeners. The question is – if you could magically solve two pain points, what would they be?
Niall Phelan: That’s good. One of the unique pain points to this part of the world and to China, Greater China is the production license. So, unlike in America if you want to make a film you could just pick up a Handycam, you could pick up your phone, you can go shoot. And if it’s good, you can get distribution they can go fix the sound and you know upscale it and all the rest of it – you might have a film.
In China, you can’t begin to shoot a film until you get a license. And then once you’ve shot it and finished it and edited it you can’t distribute up until you get a distribution license. S you need those two licenses and it’s getting easier and harder. There used to be an organization called SARFT (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television) which basically was the governing body for the film and broadcast industry. And if you wanted to make something you would submit to them a script, a finished script that’s not going to change and they’d know might approve it and you would be off the races.
There are well-known certain things you can’t do in China. You can’t do time travel although they did it in Looper. You can’t do ghost movies although they’ve done it in Harry Potter, there are certain issues you can’t do. But then like Batman, you know The Dark Knight, part of it was shot in Hong Kong – was referenced back to Hong Kong.
So, at first, they didn’t get permission to do it, and later they did. But there have been some huge…a friend of mine who produced- Bey Logan – who produced Shanghai with John Cusack, they were set to begin production in Shanghai. And then they found out they weren’t getting their license so they had to move the production out of there. They went to Bangkok and London to shoot it. And later they got their license, went back and opened or I think they got a special award at the Shanghai Film Festival.
So, you can be in favor and out of favor depending on what some executives say somewhere else in a different forum that doesn’t seem related. So definitely the first thing would be the production license. Now as I say that’s getting slightly easier and that that’s been sort of broken-down across many different areas. It’s getting easier to know what you can make and as there are sort of case examples. you know well I can make a Looper-type film but I might need a partner like DMG out of Beijing to help navigate that to get that in. And I may need to make sure the story has a piece of China in it instead of – I think originally it was going to be said in Paris or Italy or something like that and then they adapted to that part of China into it. So, there’s definitely part of that.
The second part has to be raising finance. I’m still waiting to meet this mythical dentist who was going to fund a project. I haven’t found them yet. But yeah basically you know the financing never gets easier. It doesn’t seem to get easier. We have people who have approached us but that doesn’t necessarily mean that doesn’t necessarily make it much easier. I would love it if somebody invented an app or somebody invented you know – like the “Black List” which has revolutionized the way you can find scripts. And I’m still waiting for someone to revolutionize the way you can find the money. So yeah that’s that would be the second thing.
And the third thing which is getting much easier would be something like collecting revenue. But there are amazing agencies that now do that very transparently that are well respected in the industry. That doesn’t make that easier but obviously, you know it’s just that’s just something that’s hard to do in because Asia is just so broken apart and so there’s so many markets and many different laws and trying to collect all that – it’s difficult to get your money out of something. And then obviously, the key thing is getting your money so that you can pay back the investors as fast as you can so that they’ll invest in the next project.
Caryn McCann: Speaking of next project–
Niall Phelan: Yes.
Caryn McCann: What sort of future projects are you looking for film, TV, the genre the budget range?
Niall Phelan: Yeah so basically on TV we’re looking solely for Asian documentaries. Now that can be an Asian documentary that has a global theme. So, we’re big fans of very specific areas of like the global warming problem – but we don’t want to talk about the problem we want to talk about possible solutions. So, looking at business-related solutions in certain areas of that and it’s a big thing for us.
Absolutely no reality TV. We get an awful lot of this – ‘would you like to do a cooking show’? ‘would you like to do a ghost hunting show’? And my god, do they make money. But that’s not our skillset. It’s not what we’re not interested if we don’t watch them and so we’re not going to make them and but very much anything to do with Asia. The great thing about Asia is there’s now a lot of local documentary producers who are getting their work seen out of their own country across Asia and you know some of them outside of Asia is just phenomenal because there’s obviously two-thirds of the population in the world live there. So, there’s a lot of stories to tell in that format. So yes, we are basically what we’re looking for – if I was to break it down on to – I guess things that we think might have a positive effect. But very focused on solutions and things that we think might be interesting outside of Asia that people don’t know about.
Caryn McCann: And film as well?
Niall Phelan: Yeah so film very much drama, action, thrillers, no horror, no fantasy, no sci-fi. We love watching those. I mean yes is like regressing back to my teenage years watching that film again and fantasy and sci-fi you know. We’re huge fans of Game of Thrones and other things like that. But yeah we just don’t make them we don’t know that genre well enough. We don’t know people who fund them. We don’t know how to develop them either. So, I think for China I think crossover – I mean everyone is looking for crossover films. I think a lot of the big studios are looking for the Chinese superhero, who’s that first Chinese superhero. That’s again not our area, not our genre. We’re lower budget. In America, we’d be seen as very much low budget maybe ultra-low budget for the WGA or something like that. But we’re basically looking between three to seven million US. And because in that range for us, if it’s produced well, of a high production standard, then we can pretty much guarantee pre-sales before we go to produce it. So, we know we’re not going to lose money. We don’t want to lose anybody’s money – it’s the key thing
Caryn McCann: What do you think, now you mentioned people are looking for crossovers – what do you think the Chinese studio are looking for?
Niall Phelan: I mean I think there are some people, they’ve been looking for some of the wrong stories. I mean look at the Matt Damon Great Wall was – I think everyone thought that was going to be a disaster from the get-go.
We were all amazed how they were bringing on one of China’s greatest directors, one of America’s greatest writers, probably one of the greatest actors in the world, and yet they’re going to tell the story about a war. So how is that going to be possible? We’re very much looking for smaller-scale human stories. I mean to give you a very specific example, I would personally love to find and I don’t mind saying this because I’ve already looked and it’s extremely hard to find – so I’m not too worried about competition – coming to find it and if somebody else did I think it would be fantastic – but Peter Berg in the States you know was a TV actor and has become a very talented and successful director. He’s been working with Mark Wahlberg and his production company making I don’t know what you would call them “US pride stories” you know he did the I forget the name of the soldier left alone on the side of an Afghan Hill
Caryn McCann: The Hill – I think that’s what it’s called. (It’s actually called “Lone Survivor”).
Niall Phelan: He’s done the Boston marathon bombing (Patriots Day) and he also did the oil disaster in the Gulf (Deep Water Horizon). So, he’s picked these stories that have ordinary people who do heroic things. I quite like that. I quite like the idea of tapping into something in China that’s China pride – a real story.
And I’ve been looking at the Sichuan earthquake disaster and trying to find and obviously, there was a huge number of people who helped on that – I personally know people who gave generous amounts of money, large amounts of money for those – for the relief and everything else. But trying to find something that you can dramatize. And so, we would love to be developing those with some partners in China – some Chinese pride stories or Asian pride stories, because we get so many of them out of America. And then and you can tap into it on a human level. You can tap into it on a basic level, no matter what the race or color or anything else. But it would just be lovely to tell an Asian side story for some of these things.
And also, I guess to take reality a day to day life in China and Asia. It’s a very different as you know it’s very different experience living on this side of the pond than it is the other and as it is in France as it is in Germany or India or wherever else. And so, we would just like to get some of those stories up and represented.
Caryn McCann: To Shoot in Chinese?
Niall Phelan: Yeah to shoot in Chinese yeah absolutely or to crossover and shoot in English. We just think it would add to the cultural quilt. It would add to the richness of the cinema world that’s all.
Caryn McCann: So back to your job, what skills or talents are essential for you to be effective at your job?
Niall Phelan: Good question yeah. I guess the number one thing is perseverance. Because again, I have met a lot of people who could write better, who can analyze the script better, who could produce better, who could write, now all those things.
I’ve met so many people who are better in every single area but a lot happens when you stay in the ring longer than other fighters. If you can manage to stay in the ring longer, you know you could learn things and things can happen. Definitely perseverance I think is the key thing because you’re getting so many no’s, you’re getting so many no’s when you pitch a story to a writer, you’re pitching it to a sales agent – they’re like this is dreadful. You’re pitching it to actors – no my God – I wouldn’t know what to do with that. You know, blah blah blah blah blah. You’re getting no’s and nos and no’s and no’s and you should be getting no’s because if they’re not the right people or it’s not the right project for them, you want to know.
So you’re getting a lot more no’s than you’re getting yeses and so you need to get past all of that. That’s the key thing really I think. And that’s hard to know at a younger age. I’m not sure if I had studied film – I studied economics. My dad tricked me. I wanted to go to Tisch in NYU and my dad and so when I got accepted my dad said okay great – I tell you what – you agree to do economics first, I’ll then pay you to go to New York. And so by the time I’d finished economics I had already done a couple of short films and was already doing some commercials. and so, to me it was like, well I don’t need to go to New York now, just do what I’m doing.
So, I’m not sure that would have made a difference but I think the key thing is defining what it is you want and really being specific on that. Like if you – it’s a funny thing – you decide, I want to make a movie for the first time and then you make it. Then you realize – I should have said a good movie. And then you could make it, you’re finished and you sit down and you say – I should have made a good, profitable movie. You start to add these little things to it. So, I think being specific from the beginning makes a massive difference and the clearer you are with that the clearer the partnerships you have, the clearer development will be, production everything else.
Caryn McCann: Yeah that’s great I love it. I want to make a movie; I want to make a good movie that makes money. That’s right. You got to visualize that. Here’s this is a bit of a trick question. What question did not ask that I should have?
Niall Phelan: Where’s the money? Yeah no really I mean because that is the key question. Once you confine someone that’s willing to fund your projects. And I love when I hear about directors like Woody Allen has got these bunch of people I forgot – I think it’s called Wild Bunch – that basically fund every project he does. I would love to have, we don’t have that yet, we’d love to have people that fund every project. We just met with some partners in Australia who have somebody that fund everything they do and I think when you find that that’s fantastic. So, that’s what we would love to find. So, I should be asking you, have you found a partner yet?
Caryn McCann: Soon, very soon, that is what the website is for – to bring these parties together – east and west.
Niall Phelan: Yeah.
Caryn McCann: Now the last question is – what advice can you give those aspiring to tap into the Chinese market?
Niall Phelan: There’s something like 50,000 scripts written every year that are submitted to the WGA, so that’s the WGA. There are 1.3billion people in China which is you know three, four times the population of America. So not all of those people are writing scripts.
There hasn’t been that million-dollar story of people getting a million-dollar or ten million dollars for a script like we had in the ’80s or whatever that got a lot of people off the bench and to writing.
China’s a bit different I think. People are trying to set up factories and sell widgets and things like that. But the competition is intense. There’s a lot of studios around the world looking at the China market. There’s a lot of people in China – a lot of people looking at existing IP, existing stories, existing films from China, and from other markets from Korea to India that you can adapt for that market and stuff.
So, some of the brightest and smartest people in the world are focused on that market. Just because you’re coming out of LA or coming out of Hong Kong, doesn’t give you a seat at the table. You have to earn a seat at the table. And you’ve got to find out where the table is first.
So, I think there’s a lot of research to be done in the China market. You know Variety covers it quite, Asia Biz covers it quite well, Asia Film Biz covers it quite well, and Screen Internationalcovers it very well.
So, there’s a lot of people that are covering it all the time. And but again it’s not as transparent. We don’t get the Hollywood Reporter roundtables with the head of studios all sitting around talking, explaining their strategy, talking about the type of tent poles they are looking for.
We don’t have those sorts of things. And so, it’s a bit harder to penetrate. but I think the competition is intense and so you’ve really got to know what it is you’re offering – it’s got to be unique and that’s the key thing.
So, for me, if you have you have a way of thinking of a Chinese superhero or China Pride story or you think you could take police procedural and bring it across because everyone loves police procedurals. They’re huge in Taiwan, huge in Hong Kong and they’re huge in China.
And CSI was one of the top-rated shows in Taiwan for a very long time. So, there are certain formats and certain genres that work very well. So yeah I think it would be to research it. Know what it is you can offer and then try and bring that to somebody.
Caryn McCann: Yeah that’s great. That’s excellent advice. Now in conclusion, would you like to tell us about any upcoming projects or any social media handles our website links?
Niall Phelan: yeah I mean our website is http://www.storyinc.asia. Our Twitter is @StoryIncAsia. I think that’s about it. We’re not doing a huge amount of social media but I would tell you about a couple of projects that were working on.
So basically, we’re trying to fund at the moment two series. One is a large-scale history series in China – two twelve-part series and the funding is coming out of China, Singapore, and Hong Kong with talent in it from all over the world. It’s a very modern look at history.
It’s almost like sort of CSI meets history meets Myth Busters on Discovery Channel that sort of thing. It’s a very modern fun way of looking at history and stuff. So, we’re funding one of those.
We’re funding a series on smart cities and that we’re looking at as well and we’ve got two series at the moment, a co-production between Hong Kong and Switzerland which is a comedy road movie that we’re putting together. And then we have a film that’s not in Asia which kind of breaks all the rules that I’ve been talking about that was very much focused on Asia. But we will do that every so often and it’s a project called The Girl Who Collected Sound and it’s been written and directed by a very talented writer-director called Steven Benedict. And it’s an amazing story about a girl out of London who’s a mixed-race who whose mother is dying and the girl can’t speak and the mother wants to move back to where she’s from the Faroe Islands which is in the middle of nowhere halfway between Iceland and Scotland
And she moves back there and obviously, it’s a small island so it’s a bit more conservative and she obviously has a hard time sort of fitting in and trying to get on there. But it’s a beautiful story and it’s very-very cinematic.
I mean so cinematic because it uses sound in a way that not many films do. So, we’re super excited about that one and so with that one we’re almost finished on the script. It looks like we have some funding for it and the other one we’re still developing the script but we have the funding.
Caryn McCann: You have some great projects, this is very exciting. I want to say thank you again for sharing your knowledge and expertise and being so generous with your time. I know it’s early in Hong Kong.
Niall Phelan: It’s okay. It’s nice to talk to you.
Caryn McCann: Yes, and thank you so much. And we’ll see you at the premiere
Niall Phelan: Looking forward to it.
I’ve got three key points as always. Here are my three key points with Niall:
- STAY ON TOP OF TO DO LIST: Niall said he uses his brother Paul’s strategy – Paul is his head development. And the strategy to keeping on top of things by asking “What can kill me next”? the question astronauts ask themselves to ensure things go according to plan. You need to foresee problems in pre-production and fix them.
- HOW TO FIND THE RIGHT BUSINESS PARTNERS: It’s harder to do due diligence on Chinese partners since tracking down information is harder in China. Everyone may be claiming to have a film fund or access to money (and maybe they’re just trying to bump up their stock price (like we heard about from one Chinese actress just last week). You need to ask yourself: What are their values and what are our values?
- PULLING OUT OF A PROJECT: Niall mentioned how he made some horrible decisions by partnering with the wrong people. And situations change. Maybe your current partner wants out but won’t verbalize that so is sabotaging the deal. Your reputation is connected to that partner so it’s better to walk away from a project. Not all projects will go the full distance and you need to be aware of the dynamics of the people involved. And allow them to save face.
- Get to know your potential business partners. Niall said he’ll take them out to lunch or dinner and not push the business aspect but just get to know them.
- LinkedIn and Twitter are great resources for finding partners but you need to sort the treasure from the trash. Niall said you can see what a potential partner likes, retweets, posts, and then you‘ll know if you have any similar interests and how your project might be right for that person based on their social media history.
- Financing – never gets easier. He joked that he wishes there was an app that would revolutionize how you find financiers – sort of like the Blacklist which helps find scripts. I have heard of a site called “Slated” which is sort of like kick starter but more for accredited investors. This could be an option. If you have had a good or bad experience with “Slated” or want to suggest websites or areas, you think would be good to network with investors –please leave a comment. I’ll also link to a blog I wrote on “Crowding funding in China” in the show notes.
- Be specific about what you want. He joked about first you want to make a movie, then you want to make a good movie –then you want to make a good profitable You need to be clear on what you want so you partner with the right people.
Bonus points: What is Nail and Story Inc. looking for:
- Asian documentaries with a global theme (he motioned an example such as overcoming water pollution) and how business can solve the problem.
- The genres they’re interested in are Drama/action/thriller. Their budget range is 3-7 million USD.
- He’d like to find Asian pride-themed projects (like the film “Patriots Day”) where ordinary people do heroic acts. He mentioned the Sichuan earthquake – so writers – take note – this could be your next story idea.
- He’d also like to find a Chinese superhero or Chinese pride story or perhaps a TV police procedural which do great in China.
Now for the Episodic part of this podcast – this is where I update you on my progress to getting my own China-Hollywood to greenlight on my film and TV projects. I’ve got 4 points.
- Niall mentioned Pinewood studios has a facility in Malaysia. Actually, I’ve got an action thriller script called – “The China Conspiracy” was is supposed to be shot in Malaysia. So, I may see if that option is still open and start reaching out to Pinewood or producers connected to Pinewood studios as well as Malaysian production houses.
- I’m looking under every rock: Besides the Malaysian opportunity – I’m also rewriting “Joint Forces” to be shot in China so I can open more opportunities to get this project greenlit. So, we’ll see which location (Malaysia or China) wins the race.
- Niall’s tip that police procedurals are big in China and greater China has inspired me to get to work on my TV bible. I wrote a pilot script called “The Kung Fu Rock Chick”. You can see the details on my website ChinaHollywoodGreenlight.com
I’m encouraged that police procedurals (in my case – an international spy procedural and I just made that phrase up) is something I should put more time in to.
So, that’s it for this week. 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. Bye! Yī huǐ jiàn! 一会见!
China Hollywood Greenlight Podcast – Episode #006
GUEST: Niall Phelan:
Story Inc. Website: http://www.storyinc.asia
Film: Boy Who Collected Sound IMDB: http://imdb.to/2nn9iLF