Q&A with Janet Yang, a Hollywood producer with a keen eye on the Chinese film industry

Society & Culture

A prominent Hollywood producer with deep roots in China, Janet Yang has an extensive list of film and TV credits, including The Joy Luck Club, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Dark Matter, Indictment: The McMartin Trial, Zero Effect, Shanghai Calling, and High Crimes.

Born in New York, Yang launched her career in the entertainment industry by distributing Chinese films in North America by notable Chinese directors such as Zhang Yimou 张艺谋 and Chen Kaige 陈凯歌. She successfully brokered the first sale of American studio films into China

while working for major American studios such as Universal and Paramount in the 1980s. In 1985, she joined Steven Spielberg on the production of Empire of the Sun.

Janet Yang is set to be the guest on a live episode of the Sinica Podcast on Monday, May 14, at the Harvard Club of New York for our second annual SupChina Women’s Conference. She will be talking with our Jeremy Goldkorn and Kaiser Kuo about Hollywood and the Chinese and American entertainment industries.

Prior to the conference, Janet Yang spoke to SupChina about her personal connections with China, the future of U.S.-China collaborations on film production, her understanding of the massive popularity of Wolf Warrior 2, and some changes she has witnessed in the era of #MeToo.

SupChina: You’re obviously ethnically Chinese, but you’re from Queens, right? How did you get into the business of selling Hollywood movies to China in the 1980s?

Yang: I took my first trip to China in 1972 as a child when most people were scared to go to China. It was still during the Cultural Revolution. My parents left China as graduate students in the late 1940s and had every intention of returning, but ultimately did not. So they never said a proper goodbye to their relatives and missed them terribly.

In 1972, then-president [Richard] Nixon and [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger visited China, and suddenly China was opened up a crack. In particular, my mother, who then worked at the United Nations, was invited along with other overseas Chinese to meet China’s UN ambassador, Huang Hua 黄华. He was apparently extremely charming and disarming, and said China was not a two-headed monster (or the Chinese equivalent expression) and encouraged them to visit.

Now that it was officially sanctioned, the urge to visit became even stronger. However, my parents were still worried that they might get “stuck” there, so they divided our family in two, in case some of us needed help getting out. That was the mentality then. It’s important to be reminded how much has changed since then. Because I experienced this period, each subsequent visit has been one where I marvel at what China has become.

While there, I met dozens of relatives for the first time, and it hit me that if my parents had made different decisions, I could have grown up in China, alongside my cousins. I would likely have been a young Red Guard. Despite the obvious and ostensible differences between my lifestyle and culture and theirs, I felt a strong kinship to China. And it was then I decided I would have to learn more about China, its language, and its culture.

Later in college, I buried myself in Chinese studies. The next obvious step was to go live in China. Fortunately, U.S.-China relations were normalized in 1979 right after I graduated. So I packed my bags in March 1980 to work at the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing, the official publishing arm of the government. I was an editor and a translator, and living in Beijing then was a life-changing experience.

On the negative side, I experienced a huge amount of discrimination because they thought I was local. If I was with Caucasians, I was extremely conspicuous. I was constantly barred from the Friendship and Peking hotels and the American Embassy, the main sanctuaries for foreigners. Given that my dorm barely had heat or hot running water, I used to borrow friends’ hotel rooms to take baths. That was not a good optic for them.

But on the positive, which overshadowed the negative, I got to meet a whole new generation of Chinese artists, writers, and filmmakers. I had the thrill of seeing Chinese on screen for the first time in many varied roles. And that’s when I had the epiphany that the rest of the world needed to see these films for the talent both in front of and behind the camera.

A few years later, I found myself running a theater and distribution company in San Francisco that showed and promoted Chinese films. I was happily taking Chinese delegations around to film festivals when I was approached by a top executive at then-MCA-Universal. He had the foresight to know that the Chinese film market would one day blow up. No one else in the mid-’80s was thinking that way. I am so grateful to Skip Paul for having that vision. Look at where we are today!

SupChina: You worked on Empire of the Sun, which was filmed in China in the same era as The Last Emperor. Looking back from today’s perspective, it seems those productions had incredible access — it’s impossible to imagine a foreign film crew producing a feature in China about “sensitive” historical subjects like the end of the Qing dynasty or the Japanese occupation today.

Is that accurate? What else has gotten more difficult since the 1980s, and what is easier?

Yang: Kathy Kennedy (Steven Spielberg’s producer who hired me) and I would often muse that Empire of the Sun could not have been made earlier or later than that exact time period in the mid-’80s. Much earlier, China simply would not have had a strong enough infrastructure to make the film. The government would probably not have approved it, either.

It happened to be a relatively open period in China. China’s history reveals distinct cycles of more and less openness.

Much later than the mid-to-late ’80s, it would have also been nearly impossible to recreate ’30s Shanghai. In the early ’90s, the giant “space needle,” the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, was installed. The digital technology to eliminate such a thing did not exist back then.

In fact, without CG (3D computer graphics), we had to hire 5,000 actual bodies as extras. In China, of course, that’s not too difficult. We essentially mobilized vast numbers of work units, army units, etc. The city was more or less shut down for quite a few days for us.

That’s what was easier back then. Once we had approvals from the highest level of the government, which, of course, was necessary and took some time to achieve, everything and everyone else fell in line.

Today, that would simply not be the case. During the filming of two subsequent films I made in Shanghai between 2009 and 2011 — a Chinese version of High School Musical for Disney and Shanghai Calling — both of which were shot entirely on location, we had to negotiate with every proprietor of every store on every street. Our crew members were all hired individually, too, unlike during the making of Empire of the Sun, where we did everything through the Shanghai film studio.

Which is better/worse as far as a working environment? There are pros and cons to each. One has to flow with the times.

The biggest difference between then and now, though, is that China’s market is very robust and is able to invest in its own movies and others. Both Empire of the Sun and The Last Emperor were what’s called “assisted productions” as opposed to “co-productions.” The latter involves significant investment from China, as well as a Chinese distributor. They are distributed in China as a local film and avoid the limitations placed on imported films, such as non-major holiday release dates and reduced box office split.

The two films from the ’80s did not at all contemplate a Chinese release or revenues from that market. China had merely provided assistance and loaned out services and goods. There is always more leniency in the review process of these films because they are not for domestic consumption.

SupChina: In February, DreamWorks Animation ended its partnership with its Chinese joint venture. Other major film production companies, such as Paramount Pictures and Dick Clark Productions, have also experienced some setbacks while seeking partnerships with Chinese capital. What does this say about the future of major tie-ups between Hollywood and Chinese partners?

Yang: “The only thing that remains constant is change!” For sure there have been some setbacks to the outflow of capital investment. But that’s not entirely a bad thing. Some of those mega-deals were simply not good business! They were likely the result of privileged individuals taking advantage of a system where they could get very favorable loans or real estate properties. In the cold light of day, and without strong political backing, those deals are looked at more closely.

Given China’s ginormous size, things progress very rapidly, and the government then has to come in and impose some controls.

The Hollywood view, of course, is: “Damn, where did all that money we were counting on go?”

There is still vast wealth in China, and much of it wants to enter the entertainment industry. But many are content to keep it in China. Others are going for Oscar gold. And still others want global blockbusters. We see examples of each of these, and while the balance may change, all three mentalities are still in evidence.

SupChina: Wolf Warrior 2 was the smash box office hit of 2017. What do you make of the film? Do you agree that it has opened a new era for Chinese patriotic films? Do you think the rise of such domestic films will pose a threat to Hollywood imports, especially given that the Chinese government has been incentivizing theaters to show more domestic films?

Yang: I watch a lot of Chinese films as homework. And some I end up really enjoying for one reason or another. I was pleasantly surprised by Wolf Warrior 2 in a few ways. First of all, Wu Jing is extremely watchable and charismatic on screen. He plays someone who is quite a rebel. He is not at all your stock and trade patriotic hero. In short, I totally understood why it was such a big hit in China. And I take issue with those who criticize it for its patriotism. What is Rambo, a film oft-cited as an American equivalent? What are so many films that come out of Hollywood, if not patriotic? I welcome experiencing different points of view in film. Given that Hollywood has dominated the industry for the past century, we are simply not used to seeing the point of view flipped. But I think we will start to more, especially as China is proving recently that it can feed its market just fine with an ever-expanding toolbox of film techniques.

The pattern across many industries in China is reflected in the entertainment industry. They’re very honest about their weaknesses, and they make a concerted effort to improve on those weaknesses. In film, it tends to be storytelling and visual effects — the early and late stages of film production. They soak up as much as they can from the “experts” in the area, and then they apply it to their local product.

With decades of Hollywood films regularly playing in China, their previous proliferation in the DVD market, and now the ubiquity of online entertainment from everywhere, Chinese cultural creators have a vast array of material to inspire them.

SupChina: Do you think China will implement a film rating system? What has been holding back the media regulators from doing it?

Yang: Due to very recent regulations, we all know now that all content will be regulated under the auspices of the “Publicity Ministry,” which used to be called the “Propaganda Ministry.” In Chinese, the words are the same: 宣传部 xuānchuán bù.

I have no idea if an official ratings system will be implemented, but whether or not one is publicly announced, the strictures are there. I am asking friends as we speak what they think the implications are for the future of the industry. Some say they honestly don’t think much will change. It’s a reshuffling of some personnel, but no major earthquakes. Others are spooked by the potential for greater controls over artists. Most think that most people will not be particularly affected. Some even said that President Xi himself has written some good works in the past.

I think we all have to take a wait-and-see attitude.

SupChina: You have been named one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Hollywood” by the Hollywood Reporter. This is Harvey Weinstein’s industry, and you are a minority as well as a woman. Are you especially tough?

Yang: I’m not the best person to ask! LOL. I know some people assume I must be “tough,” having worked with some “tough” individuals in a “tough” industry. Ironically, in my family, I was kind of the dreamy one — the youngest and the least responsible. But I learned how to be somewhat organized and productive, and do public-facing work. Sometimes it’s overcoming our very deficiencies that makes us more whole.

What I can say is that I never felt I had to compromise myself or my values, or be someone I didn’t like. I’ve always tried to be a decent individual, no matter what the situation or crisis at hand.

At the same time, I think the Me Too movement has opened up the eyes of many of us. While I have never experienced actual sexual assault, I have realized that I marinated in an industry that is very skewed toward the male experience. Most of us accepted certain behaviors as a given, even though we were sometimes made uncomfortable or embarrassed by it. Fortunately, things have turned around, so I am now extremely proud of the industry for taking a lead role in enlightening those in other walks of life, and in other cultures about biases, both conscious and unconscious.

That is the power of our trumpet and it can be used for good or bad. It is this very reason that I continue to remain interested in being a cultural creator and influencer. I am grateful to have seen the day when there is such a distinct paradigm shift in the zeitgeist that as an Asian and as a woman, I feel there are people finally listening to our voice. I’ve seen huge changes, from within the most elite of institutions, such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to projects with extremely wide appeal, such as ABC’s all-Asian Fresh Off the Boat. Meanwhile, Crazy Rich Asians will be the first studio-backed movie with an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago. The community is very excited about this one.

SupChina: What are you working on right now?

Yang: I’m working on several things, which, of course, is typical and de rigueur. First of all, I’m in Beijing right now to speak at a women’s entrepreneur conference sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce. I will also be going to Changsha on behalf of Asia Society’s U.S.-China film summit, which I chair. And I am having a number of meetings about specific projects.

The projects I can speak about include an animated film for which I created the story and sold to the former Oriental DreamWorks animation studio, now Pearl Studio. It’s inspired by the famous Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e 嫦娥, who’s been up on the moon with her rabbit for thousands of years because she was so in love with her lover that she took immortality pills and was banished there. My version is a contemporary story about a girl who wants to go to the moon to meet Chang’e. The legendary director Glen Keane is helming. Netflix has it for the world outside of China.

I am in the middle of negotiating on a large fantasy film with a major Chinese director and one of China’s biggest entertainment companies. And there are a few TV series I am excited about. There is also an independent narrative film about parachute kids for which the script is almost ready.

I have also been doing a lot of pro bono work, trying to organize and elevate the Asian and Asian-American community within the Academy and industry at large. I recommend new members for the Academy or help publicize good works. In the last several months, I hosted screenings for Angelina Jolie and her excellent film First They Killed My Father, Hong Chau in Downsizing, and the Oscar-nominated documentary Abacus. These are all such important works that break new ground for Asians in different ways. I feel a calling to seize the moment while it lasts. I know that timing is incredibly important, and that in this moment, the stars are aligned for women and people of color to make unprecedented change for future generations.

Catch Janet Yang at a live taping of the Sinica Podcast on Monday, May 14, at the Harvard Club of New York during the second annual SupChina Women’s Conference.