Heroes of Cult

Heroes of Cult: The Shaw Brothers

Of all the film studios across the world few have made the impact that was made by Shaw Brothers. It began back in 1925 when the three Shaw brothers—Runje, Runme, and Runde—founded Tianyi Film Company (also called Unique) in Shanghai. From there they established a film distribution base in Singapore where Runme and the youngest brother Run Run Shaw managed the precursor to the parent company Shaw Organization. The Shaw Brothers took over the film production business of its Hong Kong-based sister company, Shaw & Sons Ltd., in 1958 and the rest is history!

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In their time they nurtured some of the most influential directors and stars of martial arts cinema. They even helped fund Bladerunner and influence the now world famous Wu-Tang Clan!

Over the years Shaw Brothers produced some 1,000 films, before film production was suspended in 1987 to concentrate on the television industry, through its subsidiary TVB. Film production resumed in 2009.

Prior to their involvement in the film-making business, the Shaw brothers were interested in opera and owned a theatre in Shanghai, and their father also owned a cinema. One of the plays in their theatre, The Man from Shensi was very popular. The Shaw brothers then bought their first camera and Runje Shaw made this play into a silent film which turned out to be a success. Runje Shaw and his brothers Runde and Runme formed a film production company in 1924 in Shanghai called the Tianyi Film Company (also known as Unique). The company’s earliest films, New Leaf and Heroine Li Feifei, were shown in Shanghai in 1925.

A rival studio, Mingxing Film Company formed a syndicate with 5 other Shanghai companies to monopolize the distribution and exhibition markets and to exclude Tianyi films from being shown in theatre chains in Shanghai and Southeast Asia. The brothers therefore became interested in forming their own network, and Runme Shaw, who was then the distribution manager, traveled to Singapore to establish a movie distribution business for Southeast Asia. Runme incorporated the Hai Seng Co, which later became the Shaw Brothers Pte Ltd) to distributed films made by Tianyi and other studios. In 1927, they operated their own cinema in Tanjong Pagar in Singapore, expanded in Malaya and opened four cinemas there. The number of cinemas owned by Shaw chain in South East Asia would eventually reached 200 by the 1970s before it declined. In 1928 Run Run Shaw moved to Singapore to assist Runme.

In 1931, the Tianyi Studio in Shanghai produced what is considered by some to be the very first sound-on-film Chinese talkie, Spring on Stage. In 1932, they teamed up with Cantonese opera singer Sit Gok-Sin to make the first Cantonese talkie, White Golden Dragon. This film proved to be very successful, and in 1934, they established the Tianyi Studio (Hong Kong) in Kowloon to make Cantonese films. The move to Hong Kong was accelerated as the Nanjing government had issued a ban on martial arts films as well as Cantonese films, and two years later, they moved the entire film production operation from Shanghai to Hong Kong. Tianyi was reorganized into Nanyang Productions with Runde Shaw as the studio head. They also started making Malay films in 1937 in Singapore under the studio named Malay Film Productions which, apart from a period of interruption due to Japanese invasion, lasted until 1967.

The Shaw Brothers continued to expand, but suffered a setback during the Second World War when the Japanese occupied Malaya and Singapore. They began rebuilding after the war. In the 1950s, Nanyang began to switch film production from Cantonese to Mandarin as Communist takeover in mainland China cut off the supply of Mandarin films to overseas Chinese communities. In this period Nanyang Studio operated under the company name of Shaw and Sons Ltd. In 1957, Run Run Shaw moved to Hong Kong, set up a new company, Shaw Brothers (Hong Kong) Ltd., and built a new studio at Clearwater Bay, which officially opened in 1961 as Movietown. In the mid-1960s, Movietown was the largest and best-equipped studio in Chinese film-making as well as the then largest privately owned studio in the world, with 15 stages, two permanent sets, the state-of-the-art film-making equipment and facilities as well as 1,300 employees.
The 1960’s was a period of intense rivalry between Shaw Brothers and Cathay Organisation, but eventually Shaw Brothers gained the upper hand and Cathay ceased film production in 1970. Some of Shaw Brothers’ most notable films were made in this period, for example The Magnificent Concubine, The Love Eterne, as well as One-Armed Swordsman which broke the box office records and spawned multiple sequels. The studio popularized the kung-fu genre of films, which later included Five Fingers of Death and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Sir Run Run Shaw became involved in television when TVB was launched in 1967.
In 1969, Shaw Brothers (HK) issued shares and became a public listed company. Then, in the 1970s, Shaw Brothers faced a strong challenge from a new studio Golden Harvest which had considerable success internationally with the martial arts film Enter the Dragon starring Bruce Lee.
Shaw Brothers then also began to co-produce films with western producers for the international market, and investing in films such as Meteor and Blade Runner. However, Shaw Brothers ceased film production in the 1985 because of competition from Golden Harvest and increasing piracy, focusing instead on TV production.
In 1986, Movietown became TV City, which was leased to TVB for TV production. In 1988, the company was reorganized under the umbrella of Shaw Organisation. In the 1990s, Shaw again started making a few films, but no longer on the scale as before. Shaw Studios has since relocated to a new site in Tseung Kwan O, Hong Kong.

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