THERE WERE FOUR BROTHERS IN ALL, and the one later known as Run Run Shaw was the youngest. Large families were the rule in the China of the late Qing Dynasty, and the family patriarch, Shao Xingyin, undoubtedly expected his four surviving sons to follow him into the pigmentation/dyeing business he had established in Shanghai. And so most of them did, to start with, but when the eldest son, Runje (a qualified lawyer with an expanding business portfolio), bought a bankrupted theater in Shanghai in 1923, his ambitions changed direction. In 1925 Runje stopped staging plays and started producing films, and his brothers were very happy to join him in show business. They founded the film company Unique (in Chinese: Tianyi) and were soon turning out a film a month. And they’d already begun exploring the possibilities of expanding the business into Southeast Asia when six other Shanghai film companies formed a cartel in an attempt to block Unique productions from movie theaters in China. Unique managed to keep going regardless, but it was the scale of the company’s “empire” in Southeast Asia which won it pole position in the post–Pacific War market.

In the 1930s, around the time the Shao family westernized its name to Shaw, Run Run (then known as Renleng, though he soon changed his Chinese name to Shao Yifu) was busy helping his brother Runme with a burgeoning regional movie distribution and exhibition operation based in Singapore. Meanwhile, another brother, Runde, set up a similar base in Hong Kong. Long story short, Runde’s company Shaw and Sons was stagnating by the mid-1950s, and Run Run came from Singapore in 1957 with the mission of turning things around. In the event, he broke with Runde and started the new company Shaw Brothers. He built the huge studio Shaw Movie Town in Clearwater Bay, on land bought cheaply from the Hong Kong government, and launched production in 1958. Within two years, Run Run had only one rival as the leading film-biz mogul of the Chinese diaspora—and that rival (Loke Wan Tho of the Cathay Organisation) obligingly died in a plane crash, leaving Run Run a very large share of the pie for himself.

Shaw Movie Town was a dream factory on the model of a Hollywood studio of the ’30s, only more so. Everything possible was kept in-house, from set and costume storage to poster design and printing, and stars, directors, and other key contract personnel were expected to live in the staff dormitories adjacent to the shooting stages. Films were shot silent and post-synched in the studio’s dubbing suites, then released in Shaw-owned theaters in Hong Kong and across the region . . . except, of course, in communist China. Surmounting the complex was Run Run’s own villa, for a while his actual residence, containing the private screening room in which he watched (among other things) each new production. By the early-’70s, he was watching forty-plus Shaw Brothers features a year.

Leading directors in the studio had their own units (there were certain rivalries) and made pretty much whatever genre films they liked, but Run Run’s business model was inflexible: Everyone was on a fixed salary, there was no profit-sharing, and rewards for success came only in the form of celebratory banquets. Not surprisingly there were defections: Star directors Li Hanxiang and King Hu decamped to Taiwan in the mid-’60s and then, more damagingly, head of production Raymond Chow left in 1970, taking several directors and actors with him to found the rival company Golden Harvest, built on what was left of the old Cathay Organisation. Soon after, Run Run famously made a big mistake by failing to sign the former child star Bruce Lee; he offered him the standard Shaw contract (a long-term commitment for minimal wages) and so Lee went to the upstart Golden Harvest instead. Run Run responded by increasing production of kung-fu movies—and then by diverting his energies to commercial television. His station TVB was (and remains) the most successful broadcaster in Hong Kong.

I met Run Run face-to-face only once, in the early ’90s, when I nervously had to ask if he would let me screen some Shaw Brothers classics in a survey of Hong Kong cinema at London’s National Film Theatre. He was Sir Run Run by then, knighted for his charitable donations and perhaps also for endowing the British Academy of Film and Television Arts with the luxury auditorium which bears his name. He spoke nearly accentless English, but had a distinctly un-British directness about money. How much, he wanted to know, was the National Film Theatre proposing to pay for the screenings? My explanation that other producers were supplying films without charge didn’t impress him, but he did eventually let us have four titles for free. Most likely someone in the Hong Kong government had a word.

Run Run certainly wasn’t embarrassed about dirtying his hands with lucre, but even before he gave control of the film side of his business to his last wife—Mona Fong, a former nightclub chanteuse—he was a hands-off producer. Some directors complained that he vetoed their pet projects, but when he gave a film the green light he didn’t interfere. The evidence suggests that he never thought reshoots or reedits were worth the time or money, either. Maybe that’s why, despite the profits-first mentality, Shaw Brothers produced so many memorable films. Run Run himself will be remembered as a grand old man of Hong Kong cinema, attending social functions with a starlet on either arm. But Shaw Brothers—its logo brazenly copied from the Warner Brothers trademark—gave us as many indelible images as any Hollywood major, from Zhang Che’s crypto-gay martyrdoms in martial arts movies to the lilting songs of cross-dressed sweethearts in The Love Eterne (1963). Run Run’s empire laid the foundations for modern Chinese pop culture.

Tony Rayns is a London-based freelance filmmaker, critic, and festival programmer.