New York Film Academy (NYFA) MFA Filmmaking alum Hongyu “Neo” Li has been hired as the Development Executive and In-House Writer for Starlight Media. The production and finance company has produced several popular films including Crazy Rich Asians, Malignant, and Wuhan Wuhan. Li’s creative role includes overseeing treatments, ideas, pitches, and more. He reports directly to Starlight Media’s CEO, Peter Luo.
The China-born writer and filmmaker began his career with short films, including Hank and Waiting For Frank, both of which received international recognition. Li screened his short films at over 30 film festivals, including the Palm Springs International ShortFest, Cleveland International Film Festival, and Chicago International LGBTQ+ Film Festival. His most recent screenplay My Chinese Neighbor was semi-finalist at the Austin Film Festival Script Competition, selected as a 2020 New Reality Screenwriting Program finalist, and named a semi-finalist at the 2021 Nashville Film Festival.
Li spoke with NYFA about his latest role and life after graduating in 2018.
New York Film Academy (NYFA): What can you tell us about what you do as a Development Executive for Starlight Media?
Neo Li (NL): As a development executive, I am responsible for generating ideas, treatments, pitches, and scripts, and guiding producers and writers in the development of content, curating a growing slate of film and TV projects.
NYFA: What type of projects do you oversee as a Development Executive?
NL: I have been overseeing a couple of crime thriller projects, one with an Oscar-winning producer attached.
NYFA: What is the biggest challenge you’ve experienced in your work in the industry?
NL: There have been some challenges along the way. The biggest one was shifting my mindset from writing/directing to the perspective of an executive. As a writer/director, I mostly ask myself if the story is appealing to me or not, but as an executive, I have to consider more elements, such as talent, budget, IP, merchandising, distribution—it’s a package of deals. Of course, the story is essential, but it’s not the only factor that needs to be considered.
NYFA: What did you learn at NYFA that you applied to your work and experience since graduating?
NL: Directing, writing, and producing my year one film and thesis film at NYFA helped me understand how to complete a film from the logline stage all the way to distribution. The difference is, budgets in the industry are higher, and filmmakers need their work to appeal to a wider audience and are also responsible to their investors and backers.
As a film student, I was only commercially responsible to my selfless parents! But I do think that your short films from your degree will be your calling cards as you set out on a film career – so it’s important to think about what your films say about what strengths you can bring to a project.
In terms of specific classes, I think James Rowe’s directing class deeply enriched my knowledge in directing and story development. While developing my thesis film Hank, I wasn’t really confident about directing it myself, and my instructor David Newman strengthened my faith and confidence.
Mark Horowitz’s class in feature film sales, marketing, and distribution gave me a general idea of an executive’s world, which helped me stand out in my three-month internship. And I want to give a big shout-out to Crickett Rumley, who has been a steadfast supporter since I graduated and who has been a great resource for connecting alumni together.
NYFA: Are there any other upcoming projects or trends we should know about?
NL: The biggest trend that I have been paying attention to is that of crime thrillers combined with high concepts. As evidenced by Squid Game, foreign language is not a barrier anymore. The determining element is the core and the theme – is it universal? People living in Seoul struggle with the issue of class, but so do the people in San Francisco.
NYFA: Do you have any advice for incoming NYFA students? Especially those seeking an MFA?
NL: Never underestimate the importance of your year one film, which is a great opportunity to make mistakes and conquer your fears. Stop submitting your films to those film festivals that will hand you 10 awards. Go to the real ones. Go to their screenings and panels and connect with people. You will get inspired, make friends and probably find your next director of photography, producer, or lead actor. When you have ten film ideas, choose the one that you personally respond to at an emotional level. For your thesis film, tell your OWN story and be sincere.
New York Film Academy would like to congratulate Li on his role at Starlight Media and his pipeline of projects. If you’d like to learn more about Neo Li’s work, you can visit his LinkedIn profile or read about him on his professional website.