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Interview with film producer Yang Du – a towering figure in the Chinese film industry

Yang Du is a towering figure in the Chinese film industry. She has produced more than ten high-grossing films including “Big Shot’s Funeral”, “The Missing Gun”, “Warriors of Heaven and Earth”, “Cell Phone”, “Sophie’s Revenge”, “My Old Classmate” and “Youth”. As the Vice President of Beijing Culture since 2013, she has created a number of acclaimed and blockbuster films such as “Wolf Warrior 2”, “Wandering Earth”, and “My People, My Homeland”.

Published on 24.11.2020

What made you pursue a career in the film industry?

Yang Du: Becoming a filmmaker is a gradual process. It started when I was little. My parents were both doctors, and they were very busy for as long as I could remember. One of my neighbors was a projectionist at the cinema, and when my parents didn’t have time to look after me, I used to go to the cinema with him to watch movies. I recite every single line of dialogues. I think that’s probably when I formed the bond with the cinema.

It was in my early twenties that I was really exposed to the film industry. I was not confident enough to become an actress, so I decided to work behind the scenes. I started as a script supervisor, then moved on to promotion, distribution, script development, project planning, production, and so on. Now I’m in charge of the entire film production. Perhaps thanks to my well-rounded experience, when I was given the opportunity, producing came natural to me. My first film as a producer was “A Time to Love” in 2005, directed by Huo Jianqi and starring Zhao Wei and Lu Yi. I had already worked as an executive producer and planner, so I had experience in production management.

I had a car accident which almost made me quit producing. My two good friends He Ping and Jiang Wen encouraged me to continue producing films. They told me “We all know that you love movies so much, you should get up from where you fell, otherwise you won’t be able to heal.”

What qualities should film producers have?

Yang Du: I think a good producer has an accumulation of expertise. They need to understand all aspects of filmmaking and production. Many famous Hollywood producers are experienced professionals. They’ve made it step by step. I also came up step by step from the bottom. When I was an executive producer, I worked and solved problems with the art, set design, and photography departments. I even learned to work with a hammer and nails. Later, as a film promoter, I gained marketing experience and an insight into the market. I understood what distribution companies and cinema operators were looking for. All these different professional experiences can give you the confidence as a producer and solutions to problems.

Secondly, communication skills are also very important. In today’s Chinese film industry, producers need to be patient, persuasive, communicative and service oriented. Women are very good at this. As a female producer, you have to be able to amplify the strengths of women and solve problems. Of course, what you communicate must be backed by expertise and experience.

The third point is the ability to learn and judge the market. The world is moving so fast, with new technologies and new ideas being constantly updated. If you don’t have the ability to learn and keep up with the times, you will soon be obsolete.

Last but not least, the ability to analyze and make decisions. Of course resources and connections are important, but I think analytical and decision-making skills are even more important. There are two different types of filmmakers: a market-oriented filmmaker and an art-oriented filmmaker. As a market-oriented filmmaker, I am more interested in market analysis and decision-making. I not only have to keep up with the trend of the public, but also be ahead of the curve. That’s why the analytical and decision-making skills are so important to producers.

What aspect of the career in filmmaking do you enjoy the most?

Yang Du: As a producer, I have the ability to influence other people through my work, to export positive energy, and to drive the society forward. These are my goals and motivation as a producer.

When unhappy people become cheerful after watching your movie, or when quarreling lovers get back together after watching the movie, you will feel that your work as a producer is worthwhile and you feel accomplished.

What are you most proud of in your professional experience?

Yang Du: I’m proud that I’ve achieved all the goals I set for myself. As a producer, I’ve chosen many projects that were ahead of their time and pioneered new genres with varying degrees of success. Producers need to be able to judge the market ahead of time, plan one to two years in advance, assemble a crew, find a precise positioning for marketing, and recommend projects to investors. On the first few days of each film’s release, I am particularly nervous and I was refresh the box office results every minute. I feel so proud when I see the box office numbers growing. It’s the pride as a producer. While directors are responsible for their art, producers are responsible for the company, to the market and to the art.

Why are you committed to discovering new directors?

Yang Du: I never felt that I discovered new directors. To me, they are all excellent directors, and I learn and grow with them. I always detect talents.

Initially, when I didn’t have much experience as a producer, I chose young directors to grow together. Their talent and freshness were attractive, and working with them was a mutual learning and growth opportunity. With a few films under my belt, I started to work with young directors who have completed one or two films, hoping that my experience would help them go further. The directors know what you can do for them and trust you more.

What are the challenges for women in the film industry?

Yang Du: When it comes to nurturing female producers and directors, the most important thing is fair employment and vocational training opportunities. Of course, in most cities and regions in China, women’s education and employment conditions have almost achieved equality, but there are still areas where women are forced to drop out of school. Although there is a gender imbalance in the film industry, many Chinese female filmmakers have also seized opportunities. These women have achieved success in the film industry despite obstacles because they have clear goals and work tirelessly to achieve them. No one is born with talent, it’s just a matter of perseverance day in and day out. The women I’ve met in the film industry are all down-to-earth professionals committed to forging their own paths.

The Covid-19 crisis has disrupted the global film industry. What are the challenges and opportunities for the industry beyond the pandemic?

Yang Du: The pandemic is heartbreaking, and the global film industry and the global economy have been hit hard by it. But I don’t want to look at this crisis negatively; from another perspective, the pandemic has slowed everyone down and given the industry more room to think. Filmmakers can use this time to optimize their work.

The demand for entertainment will grow after the pandemic. Two days ago, I discussed with Wuershan, director of the film I’m currently producing “Fengshen Trilogy”, that the box office may experience an exponential growth over the Chinese New Year of 2021. The pandemic has prevented people from traveling around the world, and movies are a great form of entertainment.

The post-crisis era has brought changes to the movie market, and some cinemas have closed and switched to online distribution. But I am committed to making films for big screens. Cinema is an immersive experience and is completely different from the small screen.

The year 2020 is very bitter, and the audience wants to see hope in the face of the disaster, and future movies should bring positive energy. In making movies, filmmakers should also observe the public’s collective mood to reflect them in their work.

The UNESCO | Sabrina Ho initiative “You Are Next” provided digital audio-visual training for young women in Palestine. What advice do you have for women who want to enter the film industry?

Yang Du: The most important thing is to gain professional experiences as much as possible. With enough experience, you can be confident. Success or failure, they will leave a mark on you. My advice to women who are looking to step into the film industry is to set ambitious yet realizable goals and implement them in stages. When I decided to become a producer, I divided my goal into different stages. Whether a script supervisor, promoter or executive producer, I kept my feet on the ground and got it done. Step by step, I’ve built up the professionalism I need to be a producer. Today, I am where I wanted to be.