Run Run Shaw opened the world's eyes to Hong Kong filmmaking

Critics put Sir Run Run Shaw's extraordinary success down to his passion for film, sharp business sense and an extraordinary ability to spot the most talented actors and actresses

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 January, 2014, 4:14am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 January, 2014, 5:25am

From Shaw Brothers films to TVB television shows, Sir Run Run Shaw created an empire that not only put Hong Kong's film and entertainment business firmly on the world map but helped shape the city's popular culture.

Critics put his success down to his passion for film, sharp business sense and ability to spot talent.

"He had a profound understanding of film," said film historian Law Kar.

Shaw's fascination and lifelong relationship with cinema began when he was working in film distribution in Singapore and Malaysia, long before he co-founded Shaw Brothers Studio, he said.

"He understood the art form, but, more importantly, he had a sharp eye for the market potential of films," Law said.

That talent put Sir Run Run ahead of his peers. During the early days of Shaw Brothers Studio in the late 1950s and early 1960s, competition from other studios like the Cathay Organisation was intense. However, a 1964 plane crash killed Cathay's chief, Loke Wan Tho, and members of its top management.

Hong Kong Film Archive curator Winnie Fu said that tragic event was the turning point that allowed Shaw Brothers to dominate, to the extent that it was making 40 films a year. The studio system, complete with production, distribution, and even staff quarters, was the largest of its kind in Asia.

Fu agreed that some of the films made in the heyday of Shaw Brothers helped define Chinese-language cinema. In 1954, Shaw helped co-found the Asia-Pacific Film Festival.

She said in the 1960s, the studio had many star directors who brought Shaw Brothers productions to worldwide attention. Among them were Cheng Cheh, a master in martial arts films ( One-Armed Swordsman, 1967), and Li Han-hsiang, who filmed many historical dramas such as Empress Wu Tse-Tien, which competed in the Cannes Film Festival in 1963. King Hu was recruited and directed martial arts classic Come Drink with Me (1966).

Kung fu master Lau Kar-leung, who died last year, directed a number of films for the studio, including The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), which inspired Hollywood director Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill.

Law said critics at the time were dismayed by the standardised studio productions lacking in individuality. In spite of this, there can be no doubt Shaw Brothers Studio's system brought Hong Kong films tremendous success both at home and abroad in the 1960s and 1970s.

Sir Run Run invested in many notable films, including Ridley Scott's cult classic Blade Runner, according to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, which honoured him with a Special Award just last month.

In the battle for talent, there was one actor he famously could not snare: Bruce Lee. Despite having made an appearance on TVB in 1969, Lee eventually signed a two-movie deal with Golden Harvest, co-founded by Sir Run Run's former employee Raymond Chow.

According to Lee's descendants, Sir Run Run's studio tried to "woo him away" repeatedly but Golden Harvest kept Lee out of its clutches by sending him to Thailand for filming.

Sir Run Run's ability to read the market marked him out from his peers.

For all his success in film, he foresaw the rise of television and the intense competition coming from the rise of Golden Harvest and other young studios that had the Shaw Brothers' film empire in their sights.

After the wild success of Shaw Brothers, in 1967 he co-founded TVB, the city's first free-to-air television station, with Harold Lee Hsiao-wo, Yu King-wai and Western investors.

After switching to television, Shaw began bringing his studio business experience to TVB. The broadcaster earned popularity with its long drama series, variety show Enjoy Yourself Tonight, and experimental features that gave opportunities to young filmmakers at the time, including Tsui Hark, Ann Hui On-wah, Patrick Tam Ka-ming and Ringo Lam.

Other prominent filmmakers of today, including Johnnie To Kei-fung and Wong Kar-wai, also started their careers at TVB.

Actor Chow Yun-fat said: "I must thank Uncle Six for training so many great talents at TVB. I wouldn't have had my career without TVB."

In 1980, Sir Run Run was appointed Shaw Brothers' executive chairman after becoming its major shareholder. In 2007, he owned 75 per cent of Shaw Brothers (Hong Kong), which held a 26 per cent stake of TVB.

In 2011, the centenarian film mogul sold his stake to a consortium led by businessman Charles Chen.


Susan Siu Yam-yam, award-winning actress, formerly at Shaw Brothers

"What a day. Two of my good bosses, director Jeffrey Ho Wai-lung and Sir Run Run Shaw passed away. The flag should be at half mast today."

Andy Lau Tak-wah, award-winning actor and singer, formerly at TVB

"[Run Run Shaw] will be missed. Rest in peace."

Ng Yu, CEO at Emperor Entertainment Group and former production controller at TVB

"Sir [Run Run Shaw] dedicated his life to the entertainment business and philanthropy. He created the Hong Kong miracle of film and television. He used to watch his films at his cinemas and his own TV shows. He had a great passion for film. When I was working as the production controller at TVB, I had to report to Sir regularly. He was a great boss and everyone had a lot of respect for him."

Wong Jing, film director, formerly scriptwriter at TVB

"He was the boss I respect the most, the most successful filmmaker and a great philanthropist. Mr Run Run Shaw, rest in peace."

David Jewitt 2012 Shaw Prize for Astronomy

"As a boy in London 40 years ago, I saw Run Run Shaw's name roll past at the end of movies on TV. It was such a funny name, compared to the boring names of my friends and relatives, I always remembered it. I am still amazed and delighted that I would later intersect with Sir Run Run through the Shaw Prize.

"I think the Shaw Prize is a great thing to remember him by; it's his deepest legacy, it proves that he was bigger than most other businessmen and his visible support for science reflects admirably on him and his foundation. And I think that it is obvious that he is having a big influence on the present and future of Hong Kong, especially through its universities. Personally, I'm just very grateful to have received the Shaw Prize and I see it as a very nice gesture in recognition of pure science."