Low-budget comedy Lost In Thailand has become the biggest local film ever in China and the producers, Enlight Pictures, are taking the lessons of its success to heart. Liz Shackleton reports

Box office records have become a fleeting victory in China. Due to the market’s breakneck growth, no sooner has one local production become the highest-grossing Chinese film ever, than its conquest is swept away by the behemoth just a few months behind it.

But the success of Xu Zheng’s comedy Lost In Thailand at the end of last year caught everybody, including the film’s producers Enlight Pictures, by surprise. With a $4m budget, it was considered a relatively small film without major stars. Released on December 12, it went on to gross more than $200m, leaving the season’s big-budget blockbusters in the dust. Only Avatar has so far grossed more in mainland China.

Comedy actor Huang Bo was arguably the film’s biggest star, following his roles in Ning Hao’s 2006 Crazy Stone and 2009 Crazy Racer. Xu Zheng and Wang Baoqiang had previously co-starred in 2010 hit comedy Lost On Journey, but neither were big names and Xu was making his directing debut with the movie. He shopped Lost In Thailand around at least four different Beijing studios before he wound up at Enlight.              

“Xu Zheng came into my office and for about 20 to 30 minutes acted out the film, scene-by-scene,” remembers Wang Changtian, president of Enlight Pictures’ parent company Enlight Media. “Lost On Journey was popular among young people, although it hadn’t been a huge hit. So based on the connection to that film, and the cast and story, I thought Lost In Thailand would make about $11m-$13m (rmb70m-rmb80m) and we’d break even.”

At that point, Huang Bo was not attached to the movie. After Wang and Enlight Pictures president Li Xiaoping persuaded him to come on board, Wang revised his estimate upwards a little bit. When he saw the rough cut, he thought it could probably reach around $48m-$64m (rmb300m-rmb400m). But the eventual box office was beyond his wildest dreams.

‘Sequels and franchises will be important as the audience responds to recognisable brands’

Wang Changtian, Enlight Media

Inevitably, there has been much speculation about why the film has been so popular with Chinese audiences. Xu Zheng plays an ambitious businessman who races to Thailand to stop his boss selling a new technology, hotly pursued by a jealous colleague, played by Huang Bo. Wang Baoqiang plays a simple pancake-maker who Xu’s character attempts to manipulate during his journey. Commentators speculated that for China’s middle classes, caught up in the headlong selfish pursuit of material wealth, the film carries a refreshing moral message about why the pancake-maker’s values may actually be the ones to pursue.

While Wang agrees with this theory, he says Lost In Thailand is also the carefully planned result of a strategy shift towards making films that are more directly relevant to mainland audiences and much more focused on specific genres. “In the past our industry has produced many films that sent mixed messages about their genre. They became a mishmash of mainland, Hong Kong and American influences,” says Wang.

“We need to start making very specific films that are targeted at specific audiences. The trend of the Chinese film industry will be more like the US, than Europe, Korea or Japan. Sequels and franchises will be important as the audience responds to recognisable brands. Sequels also save on marketing costs and help us to develop new actors.”

This new strategy, which Enlight started to focus on at the end of 2011, also means the company is lessening its dependence on Hong Kong directors, stories and acting talent. Launched just five years ago, Enlight Pictures started out by co-producing Hong Kong films such as Wilson Yip’s Flash Point and Andrew Lau’s Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen. Wang also formed a partnership with Hong Kong film-maker Gordon Chan, who directed hit martial-arts mystery The Four for the company.

But while some of these films were successful, many others did not quite hit the mark with mainland audiences. “We felt Hong Kong directors are not that familiar with what Chinese mainland audiences are looking for, especially the different nuances in different parts of the country,” says Wang. “So we decided to start working more with mainland directors, with a focus on new talent.”

As the mainland film industry is still in its infancy, new talent is pretty much all that Wang had available to him. And even directors with one or two films under their belt were in scarce supply. Wang quickly realised he was going to have to create new film-makers, along with projects they could cut their teeth on.

Some of his new directors, such as Xu Zheng, are actors who are keen to move behind the camera. Enlight’s upcoming slate includes romantic drama So Young, the directorial debut of actress Vicki Zhao Wei, whose acting credits include Red Cliff and Painted Skin: The Resurrection.

Others, like Zhao Linshan who directed last year’s period epic The Assassins for Enlight, come from an advertising background, while Xu Zhengchao (Sad Fairy Tale) and Wong Tsz Ming (upcoming action comedy Badges Of Fury) have worked in TV. Enlight is also developing a project that will be the directing debut of young Chinese author Guo Jingming.

Discovering the process

Experienced screenwriters are also thin on the ground in China, but Enlight tries to pair new directors with established writers and guide them through the development process. Xu Zheng is a special case; although he had co-writers on Lost In Thailand, he has studied scriptwriting extensively, including classes with US screenwriting guru Robert McKee.

“We never used to get involved in development,” says Wang. “When we were working with famous directors, we’d respect their decisions on script, cast and production, even on budget, and gave them right away what they asked for. But then some of the films didn’t turn out the way we expected. Now we’re involved at every stage to make sure we’re all heading in the right direction.”

Wang adds that, while the company may still be earning its chops in production, it has longer experience in distribution, and is a market leader in the areas of TV programming and integrated marketing.

Launched by Wang as a TV company in 1998, Enlight Media produces some of China’s biggest entertainment shows, such as Entertainment Live. The company is also involved in the advertising industry, multimedia promotion, award shows, events and public relations. “We have a deep understanding of the entertainment industry and young Chinese audiences,” says Wang.

‘We are involved at every stage to make sure we’re all heading in the right direction’

Wang Changtian, Enlight Media

With this built-in platform to promote movies, it seemed a logical step to first enter film distribution, building up a nationwide network of distribution offices, and finally production. Much like China’s Bona Film Group, Enlight started out by distributing films that it passively co-produced with Hong Kong studios and then worked its way up the value chain. In August 2011, Enlight listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange, raising more than $200m to increase its investment in film and TV production.

3Although it co-produced Bait 3D with Australia and Singapore, Enlight has not been as focused on setting up international co-productions, or funding international films, as some of its competitors have. Nor does it have an international sales department —preferring to work with existing sales agents such as Easternlight Films and Hong Kong-based Golden Network Asia.

“At present we don’t really have time to explore international co-operation,” explains Wang. “The biggest problem with co-production is determining who your main audience is — China or another country — especially on cast choice. And it’s not easy to sell Chinese films to the international market. But we think the situation will change over the next three to five years.”

Capitalising on the success of Lost In Thailand, Enlight worked with AMC Theatres to release the film in the US at the beginning of February. The results were modest as road movies, and the moral lessons of the pancake-maker, are not new concepts for US audiences. But Wang did not have high expectations and is understandably quite happy with the film’s local box-office haul.

Now China is speculating about what Xu Zheng — who picked up the Top-Grossing Asian Film prize at the Asian Film Awards — will direct next. Inevitably a sequel to Lost In Thailand is in the works, although it has not been decided where Xu will next lose himself. Before that, he is likely to direct another comedy not related to the hit film.

“Xu Zheng is extremely picky — he has set high standards for himself both as an actor and with his directing projects,” says Wang. “He won’t direct anything just for a job.”