As a refugee boy who came to Minnesota with his family, Ted Nguyen once called the Twin Cities home.
Now living in Houston, Nguyen returned for the first time in a decade to represent his film distribution company and promote the action film, “Bay Rong” (Clash), from American Vietnamese filmmaker Lê Thanh San, that will enjoy at least a week-long run at St. Anthony Main Theaters starting March 25, 2011.
Ted Nguyen runs the distribution company Everest Productions and works with film production companies based in Vietnam, including Chanh Phuong Films. He expanded into film distribution as a natural extension of his media presence in major American cities where there is Vietnamese populations.
Nguyen came to Minnesota at age nine and attended Homecroft Elementary and graduated from Highland Park High School. He studied computer science at the University of Minnesota, and after school said everything went to chance and he followed opportunities in the home health care business and found he could fill an important role in serving the Vietnamese community.
In the 1990s he first moved to expand in California, and in 1998 he found Houston to be an even better market for his home healthcare business and relocated. Today, Nguyen employs approximately 1,500 people in a home health care business that has since expanded into Dallas and Austin.
From that success Nguyen said he wanted to diversify the business and that media was always an interest. It made sense with his presence already in so many Vietnamese communities.
He started with one Vietnamese language newspaper and now owns seven newspapers and magazines in California and Texas. From there he went into broadcast media and started with a late-night Vietnamese language program on a Houston AM radio station.
With knowledge gained and success he started his own company, Vietnamese American Broadcasting, and expanded the show to Dallas, and eventually buying the station to offer 24 hour broadcasting service. From there he expanded to Atlanta to own three stations.
“The economy tanked and the ads slowed and we had to cut the weakest stations,” said Nguyen. “We ended up closing the Houston and Atlanta stations but are still keeping the one in Dallas going.”
Thanh Truc of Asia Entertainment in California was present to perform for the “Bay Rong” (Clash) promotion party at Lucky Dragon in Minneapolis, along with the local music group Greenfield Band. (Photo courtesy of Chi Ngo)
In 2006 Nguyen met filmmaker Ham Tran, the Vietnamese American filmmaker with an MFA from UCLA Film School, who went on to make “From the Fall”, a 2006 award winning independent feature film depicting the plight of the boat people and the refugee experience and produced entirely by the Vietnamese American community.
“He wanted to advertise on the radio and I got involved in selecting cities where the Vietnamese live,” said Nguyen, adding that he was excited to see a Vietnamese language cinematic film that was a Hollywood quality production.
Nguyen learned that many talented American Vietnamese filmmakers had independent projects in mind to make films about the Vietnamese community but that funding is next to impossible given the relatively small population.
The answer seemed to be in Vietnam, where quality film crews, actors and production companied exist to make it possible to make a high budget film for less, but also as a market where films could guarantee an opening weekend return that would match the entire American art theater run.
“Everest Productions is the first Vietnamese language distribution company that can release movies in mainstream theaters and not just art house theaters,” said Nguyen.
A recent project, “Passport to Love” from director Victor Vu, a USC Film School graduate, was Vietnam’s top film for 2010 and it did very well in the American Vietnamese community as well. Nguyen said his one wish was that he has added the Twin Cities as a stop for their biggest recent success,
“It was the seventh highest grossing film per screen against Hollywood films on its opening week,” said Nguyen. “It had a long run and very successful run.”
He is just as pleased with the quality of Clash, but said an action film has a more limited audience than does the romantic comedy such as Passport to Love.
“Clash is an action movie and a good Vietnamese production,” he added.
Nguyen had initially come to terms with AMC Southdale to screen Clash, but they backed out, he said, concerned about ticket sales. He said the number of Vietnamese coming to see Clash at St. Anthony will hopefully shock the theaters into seeing that the community will support films and buy enough popcorn to make the theaters more receptive for the next film.
Once a film has had its theatrical release, Nguyen then negotiates continued sales as digital content on Amazon, Warner Cable, Netflicks, Apple iTunes, and other major mainstream online companies.
After Passport to Love had its run, it was Hulu.com that contacted them to get the movie. The content is free to the viewer, as advertising on the site and every 15 minutes or so in watching the film brings in revenue for Hulu.com.
He describes the Vietnamese American film and television environment as “flourishing” with more cable and satellite television networks and with it a growing demand for original, contemporary content. There are war stories and romantic comedies and live performances and so much more that has yet to be explored.
“It is going to amazing, it is going to be exciting, and it is going to be diverse,” he added.
Everest has long term rights they could continue to see a royalty return on screenings for 10 to 25 years for some projects.
“We in effect become a content company,” he added.
The biggest plus is that quality films tend to reach a wider audience no matter the intended target. They younger in-between Vietnamese American generation is a cross-over group, as is the non-Vietnamese population that they reach with subtitles.
Another form of revenue comes from product placement in the films. As a Vietnamese language film being distributed in several countries, they attract multinational companies such as BMW and the fashion companies that will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for product placement which offsets production and increases financing options.
“That is cheaper than advertising,” said Nguyen. “For a long running movie you can find two to three companies for product placement.”
Nguyen said that a company like BMW wouldn’t pay if the film was made and distributed in the U.S. alone. They are looking at where is the market and how many screens it is being shown. A film can be good but there are limitations, he said.
“A bad American movie will still make more money than my movie because it released in 1,000 movie theaters,” he added. “It will still make millions.”
To release and distribute a film in America Nguyen must ensure that technical standards are met and the subtitle process is handled by his distribution team.
Upcoming projects include “A Floating Life”, a drama based on the story of a woman poet. It is already released in Vietnam right now and creating a lot of buzz. He will also distribute a five-year old film titled, “Dust of Life”, about a group of troubled kids and the issues that essentially point them toward the gang society.
Nguyen said films like this are also specialty and are not received by everyone and he has to know where to reach the smaller specialty audience.
As for working with the Vietnamese government, Nguyen said he has limited contact as a distributor and that most of the preproduction work is handled by the filmmaking companies. He would add, however, that the political system will always be there but a more commercialized or privatized society is a transforming power.
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