Canadian-Chinese producer Melanie Ansley discusses how in China – the unexpected can be a blessing in disguise.
China Hollywood Greenlight Podcast – Episode 10
Host: Caryn McCann
Guest: Melanie Ansley 安雪枫 (Ān xuě fēng) Producer, Peking Pictures and Executive Director of The China Hollywood Society
FB Website: http://www.chinahollywood.org
Company Website: http://www.pekingpictures.com
Films: Red Light Revolution: http://imdb.to/2DggxZg
Films: King of Peking: http://imdb.to/2DKMBFB
Caryn: This is the China Hollywood Greenlight Podcast, episode #10
This is Caryn McCann the host of the China/Hollywood Greenlight Podcast which is 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 others can find the podcast.
Any links mentioned in the Podcast can be found in the show notes. At http://3staging.chinahollywoodgreenlight.com/podcasts-2/ and look for episode #10. Any links mentioned in the podcast can be found in the show notes as well as a full transcript at chinahollywoodgreenlight.com / podcast and look for this episode which is # 10.
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 Mahatma Gandhi who said “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
Today’s guest is Melanie Ansley who is a producer at Peking Pictures as well as is the Executive Director of the China Hollywood Society. Here is that interview.
Caryn McCann: I’d like to introduce today’s guest. Today’s guest is Melanie Ansley. She is half Chinese and half Canadian. Melanie grew up in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei and Beijing. She started her producing career in TV documentaries about China – working for networks such as CCTV, NBC, HBO and the Discovery Channel before producing her own China program’s licensed to networks such as NHK in Japan and the Biography Channel.
In 2010, she produced the Chinese feature film Red Light Revolution which won numerous international awards and was released in China. Her latest Chinese language feature King of Peking premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and due for release in 2018.
Melanie holds an MFA in producing from the USC Peter Stark program and runs the production company Peking Pictures where she facilitates Chinese and international productions. She is currently co-executive director of the China Hollywood Society as well as head writer for a Chinese comedy series.
So, Melanie thank you for coming on the show, and welcome to our podcast.
Melanie Ansley: No problem. Thank you for having me, Caryn. And actually, right now I’m running the China Hollywood Society so it’s Executive Director. Sorry for that. And we continue to do things where we hope to help people learn more about China so this is a great opportunity, thank you.
Caryn McCann: So, tell us more about yourself and your business.
Melanie Ansley: Certainly. So, I wear many hats. I’m based out of Los Angeles at the moment. I am Executive Director of the China Hollywood Society which is a network of individuals who are either experienced or interested in becoming experienced in making films in China and in the West. So, that includes co-productions or possibly just working over in China – also Chinese individuals and filmmakers who want to come to the West to make films. So, we use Hollywood as an umbrella term to embrace basically outside of China. We have a website that provides resources so that people can find each other. We do events such as mixers so that people can meet and find crews for their projects or just get information, perhaps find financing, find collaborators.
We also have started doing a webinar series where we have panelists come to talk about various subjects on filmmaking in China just so that people can get a grasp of what’s involved on certain topics like financing or a co-production or box office. So, that’s my role at China Hollywood Society which is not a business per se but a network – a society of individuals. That’s what I do – China Hollywood Society but I’m also an independent writer/producer as you said in my bio, so I make feature films as well as write for TV and multimedia.
Caryn McCann: Wow you wear many hats.
Melanie Ansley: I do yes. Listening to it – it sounds a bit overwhelming myself.
Caryn McCann: Well I know no two days are the same in this business but tell us two or three main tasks you do on a quote “typical day”.
Melanie Ansley: Sure. So, as I said I’ve got two different jobs as it were. So, it’s really quite varied. I mean the one that overlaps across both of them is just the business of communication. This industry is so much about communication so a lot of my day involves emails and responding to requests and just answering questions and correspondence, setting up things and events for China Hollywood Society as well as coordinating our films.
We’re currently on the festival circuit with King of Peking so that as you said it premiered at Tribeca but we’re still playing so we’re going to Stockholm as well as to Golden Horse (in Taipei) so there’s a lot to arrange for that. And I do quite a bit of script reading as well for future projects. And as I said I’m also writing so my day usually will involve a fair amount of writing as well.
Caryn McCann: And your writing in English for English-language films or Chinese? Or both?
Melanie Ansley: No, I’m currently writing in English but for Chinese projects.
Caryn McCann: Oh, perfect. Wow. Well you mentioned obviously, the China Hollywood Society where I imagine you’ve got this great network. How do you find your business partners and how do you suggest the audience find Chinese business partners?
Melanie Ansley: Just to clarify we’re talking about business partners in terms of making films right – not in terms of creating a network like China Hollywood Society? I assume you’re asking—
Caryn McCann: More for their production side.
Melanie Ansley: Yes, right. So, I was working in China for quite a while. I was based in China for about eight years and so I worked on a lot of different projects with networks and on other people’s films. And this allowed me to meet a wide range of people. So, I was lucky enough to be able to meet other producers and production managers which is how I was able to find somebody to collaborate on with both Red Light and King of Peking and this is Jane Zheng who’s been a long-term partner of ours.
So, it was basically through experience I think similar to the industry anywhere. I think that when you’ve worked there for a little while, you start to get to know people. You work on small projects with them and you understand their modus operandi and how you gel. And you find the right fit. So, I think for anybody who’s looking to work in China, I think it’s great to be able to first of all connect and go to mixers or those sorts of events to start with to get to know people in the arena.
But beyond that just even just working on the smallest of projects is always great because you can have that experience of trying it out and working with somebody even if it’s something tiny. And you will get a huge sense of what it’s like to work with them and how you work together and whether you complement each other.
Caryn McCann: When you went to China when you said you spent eight years in China, did you go over for a project or did you create the project once you got there?
Melanie Ansley: No I was living in China. So, I should specify that I was living in China for eight years. I’ve actually grown up in China. I’m half Chinese so my upbringing when I was a child was actually mostly in China and Taiwan. And I went to a Chinese school when I was a child. So, China in a way is home for me to a certain extent. And I grew up speaking Chinese and so I started working there in starting from 2004. And this gave me I guess a lot of inroads and insights into the market and into working with people. So, my husband and I who I collaborate with on films, started projects there while we were living there.
Caryn McCann: Okay well you are definitely the Chinese connection. Okay well, tell us what kind of obstacle have you encountered on a past project and how did you overcome it and what did you learn?
Melanie Ansley: I think a lot of the obstacles that I encountered were to do with the unexpected which I think is a great lesson to learn in China because as you probably know, living there outside of film, there’s so much that’s unexpected. That living in China you just have to be prepared for things to just take a turn, a very random turn or things that you completely did not expect to happen, to happen around you. And so, you become very adaptable I think, which is very necessary for the film.
I remember for Red Light Revolution we searched high and low for our lead actor. And we were going through agents and everybody was telling us that it would be impossible to find who we wanted to find – somebody who was not kind of a male lead character. Everybody who was putting forward their lead characters was all you know, people who came right off of soap operas or looked like they were handsome men right off of magazine covers. And we kept trying to tell the agents that this was not what we were looking for. We were looking for a typical Beijing taxi driver right. So, you know, maybe slightly heavy and very Beijing and gruff but lovable and rough around the edges. And everybody told us this was impossible and we were starting to get to that point where we thought it was impossible because we just weren’t seeing anybody who fit.
And it was actually on the day that we pretty much we’re giving up and thought we need to postpone production because we haven’t found the lead. And I was in a cafe and I just happened to see a guy who looked perfect for the role but I had no idea whether he acted or not. And this comes back to what I said about China about being unexpected. He looked a little rough and I wasn’t sure whether he’d fit and then he – and then this little puppy wandered by and he picked up the puppy and he cuddled the puppy. And it was just this moment of oh my gosh he is very lovable and that was very unexpected.
And then so I kind of just threw caution to the wind and I went up to him and I said, “You wouldn’t happen to be interested in acting or be an actor, would you?” And he said, “No, no I’m not an actor.” And my heart sort of fell and I was thinking about whether to continue approaching him to audition when his friend sitting next to him said “Oh come off it. You know you are an actor. You’ve acted in tons of TV shows and you’re a professional actor. Stop lying.”
Caryn McCann: Wow! Amazing!
Melanie Ansley: And so then I said “Well would you like to come and audition?” and he said “Oh well, okay. Well, I’m about to go into a play. But if it’ll just take me ten minutes, I’ll come.” And I said “Yeah we’re just auditioning upstairs. Please come over.” And so he did. He came up, he read the script and he just nailed it. So, we found our lead and this is one of the things being unexpected and sometimes you have these obstacles but they turn out to be blessings in disguise so to speak.
Caryn McCann: Well you definitely have an eye for talent and you definitely go with your gut instincts. So, good for you.
Melanie Ansley: Sometimes it works.
Caryn McCann: Okay well, being adaptable that’s key. Now you had an unusual situation you couldn’t find the lead in the beginning. Obviously, that’s a pain point. Tell us if you could magically solve two pain points, what would they be?
Melanie Ansley: You know I’m going to be boring on this because you could say language and everything like that in terms of translation and all that sort of thing. But at the same time, that’s also part of the fun in terms of you’re getting a different cultural viewpoint. And the world would be a less interesting place I think if we all spoke the same language or our languages were exactly the same and there was no misunderstanding on that part.
But I mean working with China especially being based elsewhere, I think and for anybody else wanting to work with China – I mean travel and jetlag in the time zone differences really problematic.
Caryn McCann: But the language wouldn’t be a problem for you. Are you talking just about – like Western crews?
Melanie Ansley: I’m talking about generally that’s right. So, and I mean even when you do speak it fluently sometimes you know you do have to remember to shift gears in terms of well who am I talking to and what is their cultural reference point right? As you jump back and forth, you kind of – you know a ‘no’ from a Chinese person is different from a ‘no’ from a Western person. And also, a ‘yes’ is different. So, you just always have to remember who you’re speaking to it in what context and under what situation.
Caryn McCann: So, the language, obviously, the time difference, the time zone. Is there a second pain point that you’d like to solve?
Melanie Ansley: No that’s pretty–
Caryn McCann: That’s pretty big.
Melanie Ansley: For me, that’s mostly it, I think. Everything else I think makes life more interesting.
Caryn McCann: Yeah, good attitude. Okay well, what sort of future projects are you looking for? Film TV? The genre? What’s the budget range? Things like that. And what do you think the Chinese studios are looking for?
Melanie Ansley: Yeah that’s a good question. For myself, I always come back to the story. I am not a format snob. I enjoy all sorts of formats whether they’re series, whether they’re for TV or for the web. I’m very excited about where the web in China is heading right now. So, I’m always very eager for something that could be done either purely on the web or on web and mobile across platforms.
So, it’s really about a project that has a really good story and then just pinpointing what platform is suitable for it. Some films or some projects are great for the big screen and some are really much more suitable for the internet or for mobile. And I wouldn’t say that I’m only interested in one or the other. I think it really comes down to whether the story is gripping and whether I can be passionate about the story.
Caryn McCann: And is there a genre or budget range you’re interested in?
Melanie Ansley: I mean, again it’s about its about story so I’m really open to different genres. And budget again, the budget I think just needs to be suitable. There’s certain there are certain budgets that I think are much harder to achieve so obviously, I would approach them a little more cautiously because you need to recoup whatever it is that you’re spending and you need to find the money.
And so, certain project ranges just make the project – as good as it is – it might be harder or even potentially unattainable within a short term. So obviously, ones that are realistic that I feel can really find a place in the market would appeal to me. Something that maybe is a little bit risky but on the low budget end that I think could be a really interesting story and might hit an untapped nerve with Chinese audiences I think is always fascinating to me. I always love those kinds of projects. If I hear something that says hey I don’t think people have seen that before and maybe, we could do that for that type of budget is I think always really exciting. And I think you’re asking about—
Caryn McCann: What do you think the honey studios are looking for?
Melanie Ansley: I mean I don’t want to put words in anybody’s mouths but I think they fall into a couple of categories. I think that there are the Chinese studios who are looking to make money in which case they’re looking for star-driven projects that are sure bets that are here in the West that doesn’t necessarily need Chinese elements. And then I think there are the other studios that are looking for something that might be China content-related in terms of what they want to get their content out to the west. So, they might be doing something in-house or coming up with scripts that they think are a good way of getting a Chinese story out to a wider audience in the West.
Caryn McCann: And would they be shot in English in that case?
Melanie Ansley: In the first case?
Caryn McCann: Where the Chinese studios want to get a Chinese story out there. Do you think they would shoot in English or shoot in Chinese?
Melanie Ansley: I think right now the trend is looking at a bit of a mix as well as leaning towards English. But I know that certainly, the end goal and certainly to the desire would definitely be to get Chinese language stories out to a wider platform in the West.
Caryn McCann: So an American screenwriter could have an English script and well that would be coming from an American point of view so maybe that – how would that work?
Melanie Ansley: That’s right. I think it’s more the studio trying to look at how can we make a story about China with Chinese elements that we enjoy that the West would also like and that could be distributed widely in the West.
Caryn McCann: But would that mean shooting in English?
Melanie Ansley: Oh I think I think that one’s – I think that one’s up in the air. Obviously, if it’s in English it’s much more widely accessible so there’s probably a desire to have part of it or some of it in English, certainly to have a Western star in it. But I think ideally if they could if they could have their wish list fulfilled, I think that it would be to have a purely Chinese movie that does well in the West.
Caryn McCann: Okay good Melanie you’ve had a unique career growing up in China you know, Hong Kong, Beijing, Taipei, Shanghai. I’m just curious—
Melanie Ansley: Checkered.
Caryn McCann: (laughs) Yeah really. If you could do your career over again would you do anything differently?
Melanie Ansley: This is such an interesting question and so hard to say because obviously, you have no idea what wonderful things resulted from your mistakes.
Caryn McCann: That’s so good attitude.
Melanie Ansley: So if you went back and changed your mistakes, who knows? You actually might not be in as good a place as you are now simply because you didn’t learn from something.
We are the results of what we’ve learned. Rather than it rather than a career choice or decisions that I’ve made that I would go back and change, I think it’d be more of an attitude. I’d love to – if I had it to do over again – I would love to go back and ask more questions and listen more. And be much more open to what was going on around me and appreciate the present.
Caryn McCann: Okay great. Now you mentioned your film The King of Peking that’s going to go on the festival circuit. Is that the big accomplishment this year? What do you hope to accomplish this year?
Melanie Ansley: So, there are my goals in terms of the China Hollywood Society which I would say is to continue doing our webinars. We did our first one.
Caryn McCann: And it was great. I’m telling everyone it was great.
Melanie Ansley: I’m so glad. Thank you for tuning in. Obviously, we’d love feedback so that we can improve it. But we would like to build on that and offer more and more regularly. I think that there’s a hunger for knowledge about how to navigate the Chinese film industry. So, I would love to get more engagement for that and make that a bit of a regular thing or at least do more webinars in the future. So, that’s a goal for China Hollywood Society.
In terms of my goals as a writer/producer we are on the festival circuit with King of Peking we’re hoping to get that distributed soon so that’s one of our goals for this year. And also, I’m writing a series that I hope to finish off this year. So, that’s been a looming deadline that I’d like to get done.
Caryn McCann: Is that a Chinese comedy?
Melanie Ansley: Yes, it is.
Caryn McCann: Good luck with that. We look forward to hearing more about it.
Melanie Ansley: Thank you. Yes. Thank you.
Caryn McCann: You wear many hats. But you know as far as the writer/producer, the co-executive director, what skills and talents are essential to being effective at your job?
Melanie Ansley: I think definitely persistence. It’s amazing how many times, how many tries it takes for one to be able to get to one’s goal. So, I think that definitely persistence which also ties into not being discouraged by no. And also, not expecting help from outside sources. I think one should always ask for help. One should always be seeking it and be open to it.
But it’s hard to grow and to go forward if you expect it because often it doesn’t – going back to what we said about the unexpected – it often doesn’t come from expected sources and then it comes from unexpected sources. So, to be open to that but to always be persisting in your goal and to stay focused I think is really, really important. I mean certainly in this industry and I’m sure that’s the case in many other industries as well.
Caryn McCann: That’s obviously – you demonstrated that with you finding the lead actor at the café.
Melanie Ansley: Right.
Caryn McCann: So, when you go to Starbucks do people like look at you and say “Melanie, over here!”
Melanie Ansley: (laughs) Oh, no-no. Definitely not recognizable.
Caryn McCann: Okay this next question is kind of a trick question. What question did I not ask that I should have?
Melanie Ansley: Yeah that’s a very good question. I think that if this is for people who are wanting to get into the Chinese market, I think an interesting thing to know from other people who have gotten into the Chinese market is why did they get into the Chinese market? And how? And I know that came out a little bit in our background. I think that there’s a lot of people who want to get into the Chinese market who maybe have not completely answered the question about why they want to get into the Chinese market.
Is it purely for the money? Or is there interest? Is this an opportunity? Is there genuine interest there? And how much time are you willing to put in to get into the Chinese market? And for what purpose? What are you seeking out of it? Because I think that that’s a really important question before one tries to get into the Chinese market because it’s not a – I think there’s a myth of basically it being this golden land of opportunity with a lot of money which is true and not true. So, important to know your goals going in and what your lines are, and what you’re trying to get out of it.
Caryn McCann: That’s good advice. Now that just leads to my next one – if you just expound on that – what advice would you give those aspiring to tap into the market? I mean yes persistence and understand your motivation.
Melanie Ansley: I would connect with people as much as I can and because the more connections you have the more resources you have to draw upon. You know try to stand on the shoulders of others and learn from others. So, I think that podcasts like this are great for learning and for connecting with others.
Caryn McCann: Thank you.
Melanie Ansley: No it’s true. Mixers like the ones that we hold or joining resources like what we offer on our website in order just be able to reach out to other people and find like-minded individuals. Possibly working for other people that are also part of connecting in terms of maybe joining a project and just saying hey can I help out and more to just see how it works and how are they doing their projects that are for China I think will give a lot of insights and allow you to talk to a lot of people with experience that will probably help you on your way in.
Caryn McCann: Good advice. Now, in conclusion, would you like to – I know you mentioned King of Peking but would you like to plug any projects or social media handles or talk about websites or upcoming events.
Melanie Ansley: Well certainly I mean everybody is welcome to come and join the China Hollywood Society. Membership is free. And you can find us at ChinaHollywood.org. That’s all one-word dot Org. You can also find us on Facebook and you can just search in there it’s just facebook.com/China Hollywood Society. And we’re certainly happy to answer questions there. We will be having an upcoming event which we will post on our Facebook. Probably it’ll probably be next week during AFM. So, feel free to look into that.
And also with King of Peking, we have a website there as well Peking Pictures.com and you can find out more info there or connect with us on our Facebook page as well.
Caryn McCann: Great. Good Melanie thank you so much for this great information and these great stories. And I love your question about what I should have asked about what are your motivations for getting into China. I’ll have to use that.
Melanie Ansley: Oh feel free use away thank you for the opportunity Caryn oh it’s great to talk to you and to be on the show.
Caryn McCann: Great. Good thanks again. And we’ll see you at the premiere.
Three key points
- Like everywhere but probably more so in China film / TV – unexpected events will arise and if you have the wrong attitude – it will set you back. But Melanie used the example of getting nowhere with Chinese talent agents and found her lead actor in a café. And it worked out great. As Melanie said, “you have these obstacles but they turn out to be blessings in disguise.”
- Communicating with Chinese colleagues is a challenge even if you are fluent in Chinese. Melanie said you have to shift gears in terms of well who am I talking to? and what is their cultural reference point? As Melanie said – a ‘no’ from a Chinese person is different from a ‘no’ from a Western person.
- There’s an opportunity in creating content for the web and mobile. Melanie mentioned she’s eager to find this kind of content to develop. So, web writers – producers are looking for you.
- There is a hunger for China- Hollywood expertise. Melanie mentioned The China Hollywood Society wants to expand its webinars. I also heard about a group that was putting together a China Hollywood consulting business (that’s not their name). So, if you have an entrepreneurial streak – here’s your opportunity. People need information. Americans want to find Chinese partners and vice versa. If you don’t have Chinese experience – find some who does and create a webinar or a consulting gig or something that brings information to people who need it. Here is a gap in the market place and someone needs to fill it.
And now for the episodic part of this podcast – this is where I update you on my own progress to getting my projects greenlit.
Now that we’re into January – folks have come back from their Christmas vacation and business is basically back to normal. Here’s what I’ve done and what I plan to do this quarter.
- I entered a couple of screenplay contests – such as the Orb Media – China-Hollywood script competition as well as the Page awards.
- I surprisingly found out that a couple of my scripts’ budget was too low for a Chinese studio. Two current projects have budgets that range from 3-10 million but this Chinese studio can’t greenlight anything under $17 million. Luckily I have a script that has a $20 million-dollar budget but that needs a polish so will be a 2nd quarter project. But that door is open which is good to know.
- I’m waiting to hear from a few folks I sent scripts to from the AFM so wish me luck.
- I’m working on a German–China co-pro and a Canadian co-pro script. Folks at the AFM are waiting for it so I need to step up my game. So, feel free to drop me an email to hold me accountable.
- Lastly, I have kind of an entrepreneurial idea – and I wanted to throw it out there. I’m considering starting a script hosting website/database for China co-production scripts (written in English as well as Chinese). If you’re a computer person or a producer – drop me an email and can explore this venture. Or if you think this is a service you’d like – let me know.
Thank you for listening to my podcast. Talking to these folks has given me new insights and new ideas and I hope this is true for you too.
Again, thank you for listening. 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