CFI Interview: HAN Capital’s John Liu on the Movies He’ll Make with $500M

  • Former  Citigroup and SAV Capital exec raised $500 million for an initial slate of 15 films
  • A history buff, Liu wants to use the movies to teach the world about China
  • Hopes to make movies not only for China but the global market
Reconstructed Mitchell B-25 - Pacific Aviation Museum - Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

A reconstruction of a B-25 bomber commanded by Lt. Col Jimmy Doolittle in the daring WWII raid on Tokyo at the Pacific Aviation Museum, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (Laszlo Ilyes—Flickr—Creative Commons)

When John Liu decided to go into the movie business, it wasn’t just about the money.

Having worked on Wall Street for close to 20 years, the former Citigroup and SAV Capital Management executive could see the business case for getting involved.

“Basically I’m a finance guy, an investment and fund manager,” he told China Film Insider. “But right now we see there’s a lot of opportunity in the entertainment sector in China. It’s growing very fast.”

Total sales of tickets in China hit 14.5 billion yuan in the first three months of this year alone, representing a growth of 51% for the first quarter.

But Liu is up front about his other motivation. “I like history very much. I want the outside world to learn more about Chinese people, society, culture and Chinese history,” he says. “And entertainment is the best way to achieve that kind of goal.”

In late February, Liu announced that his New York- and Shanghai-based hedge fund HAN Capital Management had raised $500 million to finance Chinese film and TV projects that which would help him reach his goal. He’s hoping that one of the projects, a WWII feature called In The Times Of Locusts,  will have appeal both in China and the United States.

Locusts focuses on the aftermath of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in 1942, when a small force of American planes bombed Japan for the first time.

After dropping their bombs on Japan, fifteen of the bombers headed for China where they were assisted by the Chinese. Approximately 250,000 Chinese people were slaughtered by the Japanese in retaliation for “helping” the Americans, with many villages and cities razed, and women raped.

For Liu, the story is literally close to home, “it actually happened in my hometown— one plane crashed in my home town of Guangfeng county in Jiangxi province,” Liu told CFI.

Liu thinks the bravery and sacrifice of the Chinese people who helped rescue many of the airmen and helped guide them to safe areas, is a story that needs to be told, and he ’s talking to a number of A-list Hollywood writers, directors and executive producers to try and make it happen.

“The Chinese people sacrificed a lot during WWII and somehow it’s not fully recognized,” Liu said.

Where Locusts draws on Liu’s appreciation for his people’s history, another project, Barbarian, a stock market crash crime thriller, draws on his experience working in the capital markets and draws inspiration from China’s recent stock market turmoil.

The Chinese stock market is not like the United States Liu said: “The listed companies and big investors, they’re basically all barbarians in the Chinese stock market. They just try to grab the money and then they run.”

Asked if the topic matter is likely to draw the attention of China’s censors, Liu said he has “a strategy to deal with that.”

“There are certain things you don’t want to touch, of course—you know China is very sensitive—but it depends on how you tell the story.”

Locusts  will be a co-production, subject to input and influence from non-Chinese partners, but Barbarian will be an all-Chinese production.

Other projects outlined in the $500 million slate include Gargantuan, a $100 million 3D sci-fi Godzilla-meets-San Andreas Fault blockbuster, an action adventure film Liu billed as “China’s Indiana Jones,” an action drama called Plant Hunter, and a crime drama titled Deadly Strike.

To bring the projects to life, Liu partnered with American United Entertainment’s Robert Rodriguez to produce 15 U.S.-based films under Han Pictures & Media Corp. Lance Dow is serving as Head of U.S. Development.

While Liu the history buff is hoping the projects will help raise American awareness of China, ultimately the Wall Street exec is keeping his eye on the other goal.

“The majority of our movies and film projects are for a global market—not just for the Chinese market.  The Chinese market of course is a big market right now but you know, compared to the global market it’s still a small percentage,” he said.

“Of course we’re not just doing Chinese content movies— we’re also doing other movies also. Global movies also. We’re hoping we can produce maybe six to eight movies a year. Big studio movies that’s our goal.”