Plano — In a nondescript warehouse on Plano Parkway, forklifts and drum fans dot a landscape otherwise populated by 30-feet-high shelves, tables and boxes filled with DVDs and Blu-rays. Workers, spread out at tables throughout thousands of square feet, box the discs, preparing for shipments to Wal-Mart, Best Buy and other big box stores nationwide.
You suspect that this is what any moderately sized distributor of movies featuring box office stars looks like, perhaps in warehouses around the country, and not necessarily on the West or East coast. Except the above-the-title stars on these films include Donnie Yen, Li Bingbing, Kim Mu-Yeol and other big names from the cinema of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asian countries. While not exactly household names in America, there’s nonetheless a large market for them here.
That’s where Well Go USA/Entertainment, one of the country’s largest distributors of East and Southeast Asian film—in terms of the number of films released—comes in. These are mostly action films, but also dramas, comedies and horror flicks, that ship to retailers around the country, as well as to Video on Demand services such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. (The notable Asian cinematic realms not handled by Well Go are South Asian/Bollywood and Japanese anime—the latter of which also has a large, local distributor in Flower Mound-based Funimation, which hires a lot of local actors for voiceover work.)
And Well Go is right here in Plano.
“There’s something great about being away from the [West Coast] industry, it’s nice to have a separation,” says Doris Pfardrescher, President and CEO of Well Go and daughter of founder Annie Walker, who started in entertainment distribution in Taiwan. “It’s great to have a life here, with the family and kids; we can grow up with a ‘normal’ life.”
Also, notes Doris’ brother Dennis Walker, CFO/COO of Well Go: “We’ve been able to grow at the rate we want to grow at.”
Dennis and Doris followed in their mother’s entrepreneurial footsteps. In fact, Well Go is a family business: Dennis’ wife Chrissy Walker is Director of Marketing and Doris’ husband Jason is Senior Vice President of Digital and Theatrical Distribution. The company employs about 35 full-time employees including the warehouse staff.
A number of recent and upcoming releases can be seen at the 14th Annual Asian Film Festival of Dallas, which runs through July 23 at the Angelika Film Center, Dallas. To boot, Well Go could have an Oscar nominee on its hands next year, as the acclaimed film The Assassin, which recently won a Best Director prize at Cannes Film Festival for Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, gains international attention. (It will be released in China on July 31, and in America this fall—and will likely be Taiwan’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2016 Academy Awards; see trailer below.)
That would be a small victory for a company that, over the past 10 years, has grown from earnings in the low millions to eight figures.
MOTHER KNOWS BEST
Annie was born into a cinematic family in Nanjing, China. Her father was award-winning cinematographer Ho-Hsi Chi, and her brother actor Xiang Yuen Pong. The family moved to Taiwan just before the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Because of the film connections, there were always celebrities hanging out at the house, but Annie had no interest in the film world.
“Dad wanted me to be an actress,” Ann says. “But I was so shy, there was no way. ...But now I’m the only one left in the industry.”
She met her husband, Charles Walker, an American Navy officer, when he was stationed in Taiwan. Because of his job, the family moved around the world, living in Morocco, Spain, Hawaii and several cities in the continental U.S. Ann had worked for Fendi Timepieces in Taiwan, and was transferred to North Texas in the 1990s.
While in Taiwan, her brother asked her to help with distributing a line of karaoke on VHS and LaserDisc. She learned how to license content for several countries in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. When one of those companies they licensed to went under, Ann and Doris learned how to do it themselves, moving from manufacturing to sales.
When the family moved to Texas, they kept the business going. The name Well Go comes from the Chinese hui guo; it was a logo of a turnspit dog with a microphone.
In the 2000s, Well Go grew exponentially by distributing instructional golf DVDs, hip-hop dance videos, filmed productions of spectacles like Riverdance, and children’s programming. Then they were asked to produce and distribute a martial arts video called Combatant.
“That’s when we learned that there are martial arts fans here,” says Dennis, who had been working in Nordstrom corporate in California, and moved to Texas to help his mother and sister out with their growing company.
And by fans, Dennis doesn’t refer to North Texas’ large Asian community, although they are certainly part of the market.
“Our demographic is the white man who loves martial arts,” noting that a recent survey found that their biggest audience in America consists of white, Hispanic and African-American men between the ages of 45 and 55.
Well Go’s first major movie to score distributions rights for was 2008’s Ip Man, a popular action film about grandmaster martial artist and Bruce Lee’s mentor Wing Chun, starring megastar Donnie Yen. That franchise has become popular in China, and Ip Man 3, starring yen and Mike Tyson, will be released in 2016. Well Go has handled films with Jackie Chan, John Woo and other major names of Asian cinema that are known to Americans.
That acquisition, along with other major Asian films, put Well Go in a prime position to bid on films. Their main competition, says Pfardrescher, are companies like Lionsgate, Weinstein, Sony Pictures Classics and Magnolia—but none of those focus on Asian cinema, and have largely shown more interest in the Asian horror flicks (many of which are remade by Hollywood) and dramas. Weinstein picked up Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II: The Green Legend, which will be released in early 2016 simultaneously on Netflix and in IMAX.
ALWAYS FESTIVAL SEASON
If it’s surprising to learn that Plano has one of the country’s largest distributors of Asian film (and is looking to expand its warehouse), the Asian Film Festival of Dallas is one of the largest in the country, not far behind similar festivals in New York and San Diego.
As part of her job, Doris Pfardrescher travels to major festivals around the world, including Toronto, Cannes, Berlin, Sundance and Hong Kong Film Art and Film Festival searching for films that Well Go could pick up. Well Go also has offices in Taiwan and Guangzhou, China, where Annie travels about every six weeks.
“I go to all the festivals, I will screen a film and if I think something that will work for us I try to figure out the price,” Pfardrescher says. “Then I bid on them. ...We will time a release with the same day a film releases in China or Korea. Obviously the bigger the film and its stars, it will cost a lot more money.”
Well Go embraces film festivals as a critical component to a film's life cycle. Festivals provide an advance look—and advance buzz for fans and film critics—which can be a huge benefit for a film's marketing. Well Go places films with more than 100 festivals and special events each year.
In 2013, the New York Asian Film Festival included a Well Go USA Spotlight highlighting the company's efforts and contribution to the festival community.
So far in 2015, Well Go has released 18 theatrical films. In 2014, it released 17 theatrical films, and a total 55 including VOD and direct to video. Well Go also programs a monthly series called Asian Movie Madness at the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson. Next up is Kung Fu Killer, starring Donnie Yen, at 9 p.m. Tuesday, July 28.
In recent years, many of the films coming from China have been romantic comedies, as action flicks are becoming increasingly expensive to make. There are still plenty of them, though.
Well Go has goals that go beyond distribution, including producing, and not just of Asian films. One of its first major films as investor/producer is Kidnap, a thriller starring Halle Berry to be released this fall. Also in the pipeline: Kill Your Friends, starring Nicholas Hoult, James Corden and Rosanna Arquette; November Criminals with Catherine Keener and David Strathairn; and, of course, going back to the film that changed the game for Well Go, Ip Man 3.
That’s big-time growth for something that began as, and remains, a family business. Annie, Doris and Dennis agree that it might not have worked any other way.
“Everyone thinks working for family is going to be tough,” says Doris, “but what separates us is that we’re very close knit, even our spouses. We have the same vision and goals.”
» The Asian Film Festival of Dallas continues through July 23 at the Angelika Film Center Dallas. See schedules and purchase tickets at their website, here. Well Go USA/Entertainment has four films in this year’s festival, which are:
- Northern Limit Line (Korea, drama): 9 p.m. Saturday, July 18
- Wild City (Hong Kong, action/thriller): 7 p.m. Sunday, July 19
- For the Emperor (Korea, thriller): 10:45 p.m. Monday, July 20
- Golden Cane Warrior (Indonesia, fantasy): 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 21
Here's a trailer for Well Go's films in AFFD: