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Mike Ellis: Opportunities in China’s Film Industry

January 07, 2016
Michael Ellis, president and managing director of the Asia-Pacific region for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)
Michael Ellis, president and managing director of the Asia-Pacific region for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)

Michael Ellis is the president and managing director of the Asia-Pacific region for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and for the Motion Picture Association International. Ellis is in charge of 14 Asian countries, and advocates for open markets, develops strategies to combat the growth of piracy, and works with local law enforcement agencies to protect the rights of MPA films. He is a lawyer qualified in Hong Kong, England and Wales, and spent 15 years with the Royal Hong Kong Police.

It’s a good time to be in show business in China. A recent study shows that the film and television industry contributed $64.4 billion to the Chinese economy last year. Where do you think the areas of opportunity are?

There’s a huge appetite for all film, and in particular local films. I think local productions are a great opportunity. We’re talking about a film that's really made for the Chinese marketplace, a film that a Chinese audience would like. Foreign money coming in to make a local film is still a local film. If it's a local film, you are not competing against the box office quota for foreign films; you are not going through a co-production process; you are not doing a flat sales deal – you are making local film[s], which have higher revenue-sharing percentages. And then you can bring in the expertise and elements that you've learned as foreign filmmakers and see how to apply them.

Ultimately I think local productions are a great opportunity, because if you are making a film to a local scale, your investment cost can be a lot lower. You are more realistic about your audience that you are going for.

Do the new media platforms that are flourishing in China present more opportunities?

I think the Internet companies like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent are all providing an incredible opportunity for a film to reach a wider audience. These are big companies, and they have the ability to market and introduce their films in wide-ranging platforms. You can release a film on a pay-per-view model, or a subscriber model, where the viewer pays a small monthly fee to watch films and TV shows.

I do think that China leads the world in the way they have taken their product to the audience. With the vast number of Internet users and people on mobile phones, and their willingness to watch videos on mobile screens, I think those companies are incredibly important in China and people are paying attention. We have companies like Wanda Group, with significant financial backing. Clearly very determined, smart business people on the theatrical side who have built their own film and distribution division and have money to back up their ambition.

What are the Motion Picture Association’s priorities in China in the next few years?

The top two things that we do are to promote and protect the film industry. The two go hand in hand. Of course we want to get more American films into China, we want our films to earn greater money, and we want to know when the films are going to be released. At the same time, we work very closely with the Chinese government on copyright enforcement.

There's a great cross-exchange of information and I think that's important. The world will be a better place for that, and audiences will be entertained by the films coming out of both marketplaces. I think that's something that we can share knowledge on. The young filmmakers coming out of China right now are making films that younger audiences love – it's the fastest-growing market in the world and we are proud to be part of that.

How do you support filmmakers?

We support the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, and together with them we engage with some of the most innovative and enterprising filmmakers from across the region on film industry issues. With APSA we created the MPA APSA Academy Film Fund, and every year we give out four prizes of $25,000 to filmmakers to support a project they have in development. We’ve had lots of successes, but two films stand out. The first film is “A Separation,” which went on to win the Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars. Then we gave a prize to a young filmmaker called Maryam Ebrahimi – an Iranian filmmaker living in Sweden – who wanted to make a film called “No Burqas Behind Bars,” a documentary about women sent to prison in Afghanistan. I met up with her and asked, ‘What did our prize mean to you?’ She said, ‘Oh my God, I ran off the stage and called my film producer and said, “We’ve got enough money to buy a ticket to Afghanistan to go live in a prison!” ‘I said, ‘So our money sent you to prison?’ She said, ‘Yes, and I made this documentary about these poor women who were sent to prison for such crimes as talking to a man who wasn’t her husband, and the sentence was greater than someone who committed murder.’

This film won many awards at film festivals and won an Emmy. We’re very proud that we are able to support young filmmakers like that.

You have an interesting history of your own. You joined the police force in England when you were 16 years old. How did that happen?

I needed a job. I had a choice to join the police force or join the Foreign Legion and the police force replied quicker, so I joined them quicker. I was in the British Police Force and I was in the Hong Kong Police Force, where I was a detective.

I was a detective for a number of years and I ran special duties operations: we did undercover work for drugs, prostitution and gambling. And then I did international fraud and extradition – chasing down fraudsters from around the world and bringing them back to Hong Kong to face trial. Then I was running an operation unit for VIP protection, where I protected dignitaries and embassies. Then I worked for Chris Patten, who was the last governor of Hong Kong leading up to the handover. I was his aide-de-camp and handled basically diplomatic affairs and security. I had an exciting time in the police.

Have you ever thought about turning your life into a movie?

(Laughs) The information I had access to and the things I saw and did would make that a difficult movie to make. I have always operated in an area of confidentiality and I have been very privileged to do that. I am very lucky; I have had great jobs.

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