Ross Pollack, the new CEO of Hong Kong’s Celestial Pictures is looking to build the company brand and exploit its Shaw Brothers library digitally.
As the new CEO of Hong Kong producer, distributor and pay-TV channel operator Celestial Pictures, Ross Pollack faces an intriguing challenge: what to do next with the crown jewels of the Hong Kong film industry?
For Celestial, which is owned by Malaysian pay-TV giant Astro All Asia Networks, is in turn the owner of the 760-title Shaw Brothers library - the output of Run Run Shaw’s prolific Hong Kong film studio, which was the only player in town until a former employee, Raymond Chow, set up Golden Harvest in the 1970s. The Shaw Brothers library spans from the 1950s to the 1990s and contains many of the classics - including The One-Armed Swordsman and The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin - that Hong Kong’s present-day film-makers grew up on.
Under Celestial’s previous management, the library was digitally remastered and licensed to home video and television in more than 100 countries. Now that the company has, in Pollack’s own words, “licensed the wheels off the truck”, it is looking at its next steps.
“What I would say is that, while we have exploited the library, we’ve done it in the traditional sense of licensing to free and pay-TV platforms, and we believe the digital era offers a lot of opportunities,” says Pollack, who joined Celestial in September last year. “It offers channels of distribution, but there are also opportunities to remake those films in a number of different ways.”
Among other initiatives, this means Celestial will be reworking and remaking the content into various formats - such as one-hour movies and mini-episodes - and expanding the range of platforms on which it can play to encompass websites, mobile phones and online games. Pollack says the aim is to make the content more relevant to younger audiences who did not grow up with the Shaw Brothers legacy. “The sense of classic movies will be an important way to review the library, but we also want to build the Celestial brand in a way that makes people see it as innovative and contemporary. We want people to interact with the content and have fun.”
The company is also heading into feature-film production - both remakes of the Shaw Brothers library and original stories. Pollack says some of the remakes, in both feature film and other formats, will have a contemporary twist. “There’s already an abundance of costume dramas out there, so what we really want to do is reintroduce the library, which when you boil it down is really 760 stories,” Pollack says. “If you take a movie like The One-Armed Swordsman, the lead character could just as easily be a woman or a policeman who is injured in modern-day Hong Kong. It’s a story about loyalty, about striving to regain honour, and those are universal themes.”
Since joining Celestial, Pollack has brought on board two executives who will spearhead the production and worldwide distribution of new content - former Media Asia and Fortune Star executive Peter Poon, as senior vice-president, theatrical distribution, and producer Rosa Li as creative executive.
At Fortune Star, Poon oversaw distribution of the region’s other large Chinese-language film library, owned by broadcaster Star. Working with her husband, director Kenneth Bi, Li has produced award-winning films such as Rice Rhapsody and The Drummer, which are deeply rooted in local culture but also have an international sensibility.
Celestial also recently announced it has tied up with Hong Kong film-maker Teddy Chen for some of the first productions on its new slate. Chen, who most recently directed critical and commercial hit Bodyguards And Assassins, will direct and produce his next two films with Celestial - one a Shaw Brothers remake and the other a modern action film inspired by current events. Celestial, which will invest in and acquire content as well as produce it, also announced it has picked up worldwide rights outside China to Derek Kwok’s upcoming The Enchanter, which is being produced by Chen’s Sum-Wood Productions.
“The mandate from our parent company Astro is as follows - we want you to create content; we want you to be above the line,” says Ross. “Always Chinese-focused, but we want you out there creating content to not only feed the channels but refresh the library as well.”
Pollack also intends to expand Celestial’s bouquet of pay-TV channels. It currently operates three channels: Celestial Classic Movies, which shows older films including the Shaw Brothers titles; Celestial Movies, which features newly acquired films from around the region; and youth-oriented Wah TV. “Our goal is ultimately to build to around five or six channels. We are working on one channel right now that we’re looking to get out by the middle of next year, and one a year after that,” Pollack says.
Born in the US, Pollack first came to Asia 17 years ago, speaks Japanese, and has many years’ experience working with Asian content. Before joining Celestial, he spent 13 years with Sony Pictures Entertainment - including seven years in Los Angeles and six in Hong Kong - mostly within the studio’s international TV group.
From 2004 until his move to Celestial, he held the position of senior vice-president, distribution Asia, for Sony Pictures Television International (SPTI), responsible for distribution of the studio’s filmed entertainment, acquisitions and locally produced content.
At the time he joined Celestial, the company had been without a CEO for around 18 months. Its previous chief, William Pfeiffer, departed in March 2008 to set up film and TV venture Tiger Gate Entertainment, in partnership with Lionsgate. Pfeiffer launched Celestial in 2001, with backing from Malaysian tycoon Ananda Krishnan’s Usaha Tegas (UT) group, and during his tenure the company licensed the library, launched TV channels and acquired and distributed films such as Peter Chan’s musical Perhaps Love. Astro, also part of Krishnan’s empire, acquired Celestial from the UT group in 2003.
Although Astro is not involved in the day-to-day running of its Hong Kong subsidiary, Pollack does see some synergy between Celestial and its parent company, which in addition to broadcasting is also a leading producer of Malay-language film and TV content.
“Certainly in the digital space as we look to expand and create new content, we’ll be sharing that with Astro. Not only the content but also the technology and know-how. And I think as we get our production flywheel going there’s an opportunity to work together.”
Pollack says the company also hopes to work with other Asian companies and is in talks with potential co-financing partners on its bigger projects. He then summarises the problems faced by the Asian film industry, problems the West would love to have. “There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of money in the market right now, and one could even argue there’s an abundance of money. But there is a shortage of great stories, actors and directors.”
The lack of talent and material to feed Asia’s production boom frustrates producers across the region. But as gatekeeper to the Shaw Brothers heritage, Celestial appears to have the support of local talent.
“A lot of people have sentimental attachment to our content because in some way it inspired them to get into this business,” Pollack says. “We don’t want to take credit for that, but the good thing is, a lot of people are rooting for us and want to work with us to retell those stories.”
- Graduated with a BA in International Business from Pace University in New York and also has an MBA in International Finance from Thunderbird School of Global Management, in Phoenix, Arizona.
- Moved to Tokyo in 1993 where he worked for Hewitt Associates and studied Japanese at the International Christian University, followed by a brief stint in Hong Kong.
- Joined Sony Pictures Entertainment in 1996 and worked for the studio in Los Angeles for seven years, holding various positions including senior vice-president, sales planning, for Sony Pictures Television International (SPTI).
- In 2003, Pollack relocated to Hong Kong where he was initially responsible for SPTI’s regional business development. From 2004-09, he was responsible for distribution of all Sony Pictures’ filmed entertainment, acquired products and produced content in Asia as senior vice-president, distribution, Asia.
- Pollack joined Celestial Pictures as CEO in September 2009.