Behind the Scenes of the Beijing International Screenwriting Competition

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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 28, 2013

In a world that is absolutely brimming with screenwriting competitions, you’d think there wouldn’t be much need for another one. But the new Beijing International Screenwriting Competition has emerged so dramatically on the scene and from such a seemingly unlikely place that I decided to make a few calls and check it out.

It turns out that the competition, the first of its kind, has quite an interesting back story of its own.

The competition’s founder and Chairman is Kevin Niu, an energetic Chinese-Canadian with a background both in film producing and in technology. Recognizing the Chinese film industry’s acute need for quality, professionally written screenplays, and the fact that western writers are the ones whose scripts result in globally successful movies, he set out to attract those writers to consider China as a setting for their stories. Niu’s purpose is completely apolitical; his goal for the competition is to “foster artistic collaboration and an ongoing creative dialogue between China and the U.S.”

Niu has secured support and sponsorship from a range of institutions that includes Harvard and its alumni entertainment group, Harvardwood, from talent agencies WME and UTA, and from the Beijing Cultural Asset Office (BCAO), which has provided financial support. The BCAO’s party secretary, Huiguang Zhang, is serving as President of the competition.

Niu and his colleagues arranged for the competition to be announced to U.S.-based writers in a blitz of publicity over the past few weeks, with the aim of attracting short film and feature length stories that are set at least partially in Beijing. There are no entry fees, and awards include cash prizes of $1,000 with all-expense paid trips to Beijing. The Grand Prizes include a monetary cash award of $15,000 for the feature film winner and seven Production Grand prizes for the short film winners who will be fully sponsored to produce their productions in Beijing.

The Grand Judges of the competition are Tracey Trench and Mark Jonathan Harris. Trench is a former studio executive at Fox, a producer of such films as the Drew Barrymore starrer Ever After, and the 2006 comedy The Pink Panther; she is currently  consulting to Dreamworks Animation and its China joint-venture, Oriental Dreamworks. Mark Jonathan Harris is an Oscar-winning documentarian (Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport). Working behind the scenes is Ann Chao, a second-year Harvard Business School student who brought the Beijing competition to my attention.

For information about the competition and to submit an entry, go to this link.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at and at

Legendary East’s Fortune Cookie Crumbles

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 30, 2011

Legendary Pictures’ China ambitions ran into a great wall of investor resistance yesterday, as Hong Kong financing partner Paul Y Engineering (PYE) announced that it has been unable to raise sufficient investor interest to complete its $220 million investment in Legendary East, a planned three-way partnership with Legendary and Beijing-based Huayi Brothers.

Here’s the first part of the press release that was issued by PYE and its parent company, PYI:

The most revealing phrase in the press release is the statement that “some or all of the parties… may continue, in the near term, to discuss potential changes in the transaction structure…”

While PYE Chairman James Chiu blamed “the current difficult environment of the capital markets” for his failure to raise the necessary funds for the joint venture, I strongly suspect that other factors were the real reason for his quashing the deal. As I wrote in a previous post, the deal terms as originally announced were decidedly lopsided in Legendary’s favor, and in any event it made no sense for a construction firm like Paul Y to be putting shareholder money into movies, a business about which PYE’s senior executives openly admitted they know absolutely nothing.

PYE had originally explained its participation in the Legendary East joint venture as an effort to diversify its business into a more profitable industry sector with less cyclicality than its core construction operation. But as my former boss, Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter, would tell you, this is just the sort of misguided thinking that almost always leads to ruin.

In a study I conducted for Porter that led to a seminal article he wrote for the Harvard Business Review, we found that corporate diversifications like the one PYE proposed most often dissipated instead of created shareholder value. Investors are almost always better served by making their own diversification decisions within their personal stock portfolios instead of having corporate managers try to make these diversifications for them.

PYE’s and PYI’s investors no doubt took issue with their management team’s intentions and refused to go along.  PYI Chairman Tom Lau made himself an easy target for investor revolt in November when he said. “We do not understand the business of motion pictures nor do we pretend that we can contribute anything more than money.” It was one of the most candid statements I’ve ever seen from a major company Chairman, and also one of the least confidence inspiring.

I’m a big fan of Legendary, and I hope they find a way to realize their ambitions. My friends at the company tell me they’re pushing ahead with their China plans, and for their sake I hope that either PYE or other investors will provide the capital they need. But for Legendary to succeed in the long run in China they’ll have to do so on business terms that make sense for both sides. Even if the initial capital raise had succeeded, the PYE-Legendary East deal wasn’t a good one for PYE or for Huayi Brothers, and therefore looked to me like a partnership that would have been doomed from the start.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at and at