Countries pause on film matters as foreign relations cool

SYDNEY — Last week’s mission to Beijing and Shanghai by a delegation of high-powered Universal execs nearly fell victim to the chilly state of U.S.-China relations.

U’s top brass wanted to show support for their Chinese partners in the studio’s first co-production with the mainland — “Pavilion of Women” — as well as to scout for fresh business opportunities in China. But Variety has learned the trip was on hold while American Navy servicemen involved in the recent collision with a Chinese fighter jet were being detained.

“Until the Americans were allowed to come back home, the trip was not going to happen,” one Hollywood source confides.

The visit by a 10-strong delegation headed by Universal Pictures vice chairman Marc Shmuger and president-chief operating officer Rick Finkelstein was meant in part to signal that for film, it’s business as usual between Hollywood and China. In reality, though, there has been a pause in dialogue between the two countries on entertainment matters.

“We’re waiting for the dust to settle (from the spy plane incident) before we resume talking to China about expanding (film) cooperation,” says one U.S. industry exec. At issue, the exec says, is China’s pledge — in its effort to gain entry into the World Trade Organization — to double to 20 the number of U.S. and other foreign films released in its market each year on a revenue-sharing basis. The U brass arrived in Beijing April 18 and were skedded to meet with officials at China Film Import & Export Corp., the Ministry of Radio, Film and Television, Shanghai Film Studios and distrib Shanghai Paradise. They execs were due to attend the preems of “Pavilion of Women” in Beijing April 20 and the following night in Shanghai, kicking off the film’s theatrical release in China ahead of its May 4 U.S. bow via Universal Focus.

In their meetings with Shanghai Film toppers, the U execs will have the chance to learn about that entity’s aspirations to become a nationwide distrib that competes with China Film when the latter’s monopoly is abolished, as expected after China gains entry to the WTO.

“One of the major purposes of the trip is to establish new bridges and relationships as well as (furthering) established relationships,” says United Intl. Pictures chairman-chief exec Paul Oneile, who accompanied the Hollywood execs.

It’s believed the U heavies also are using the meet-and-greet sessions to explore the potential for building a theme park in China.

Based on the Pearl Buck novel and helmed by Hong Kong filmmaker Yim Ho, “Pavilion of Women” is the 1938-set saga of a rich wife who scandalizes society when she declares she will arrange for a much younger woman to be her husband’s concubine.

Shot in English, pic features a cast headed by Willem Dafoe, Luo Yan (who also served as producer), John Cho, Yi Ding and Anita Loo. It’s a co-production of Universal, Luo Yan and the Beijing Film Studios in association with the China Film Co. Production Corp.

The pic will platform initially in New York, L.A., Washington and San Francisco.

Universal, which holds all rights excluding China and Hong Kong, intends to peg its release via UIP in other territories to major film fests. One exec who has seen the film says it’s eminently suited to the fest circuit but doubts its commercial potential abroad.

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