Medavoy plows past for projects

Upcoming projects mirror the producer's past

In order to catch a glimpse into Mike Medavoy’s future, one need only look at his past.

That’s because the Shanghai-born, Santiago-bred Medavoy is focusing his energy on three projects — two in China and one in Chile — that bring him full circle with his youth.

“These are my roots,” says Medavoy, who spent seven years in China and a decade in Chile before immigrating to the United States. “They are obviously mixed with my years in America. But they are unforgettable because they are my childhood. Like all of us, we don’t forget about our childhood.”

First up is the six-hour miniseries “Tears of the Sparrow,” which chronicles the Jewish experience in Shanghai during WWII, when scores of Russian Jews such as the Medavoys fled the pogroms of their homeland and settled in China.

“Tears” finds him reteaming with old comrade Nicholas Meyer, who just finished penning the script. (Former Orion honcho Medavoy greenlit Meyer’s directorial debut “Time After Time” more than three decades ago, though the two never collaborated again until now.)

Meyer will soon segue to writing the Medavoy-produced feature “The Cursed Piano,” based on Chinese author Bei La’s novel. The “Dr. Zhivago”-esque love story between a European Jew and a Chinese piano student is also set against the backdrop of World War II-era Shanghai, once again encompassing the very era that forms Medavoy’s earliest memories.

“When he offered me the shot, I leaped,” says Meyer. “Obviously these are two projects that mean a lot to Mike.”

Medavoy, who quips that he is one of the favorite sons of Shanghai, is partnering with the Shanghai Film Group on both Far East projects — a savvy move given the tight restrictions placed on U.S. films entering the lucrative Chinese marketplace.

“China only allows 20 films a year,” says Medavoy. “What is clear is this is a trade issue. I’m just watching on the sidelines. But that’s one of the reasons why I decided to cooperate with the Chinese and make something that will be seen, hopefully, worldwide.”

It’s not just Medavoy’s future at stake. The filmmaker with five decades of experience is quick to note that the entire industry is facing an adapt-or-die moment.

“The question most people have to ask is where are the markets? How do we maximize our profits? The Internet has challenged everyone to try to avoid the disaster that befell the music business.”

Clearly, Phoenix’s model runs counter to what Medavoy sees as a current studio system with unruly spreadsheets that might rival the federal budget’s Herculean struggle with checks and balances.

“If you’re making 12-15 films a year, and you’re making them at a $200 million, $300 million, $400 million cost — and you add another $100 mil in P&A — you’re chasing some really high numbers,” he says. “And meanwhile you’re giving away a big part of your profits (to outside co-financing partners) because you’re looking for a way to limit losing money in case it doesn’t work. Chasing those high numbers would make me nervous if I had to make those decisions. It’s a dangerous game.”

He views the way Fox Searchlight-marketed “Black Swan” as a model of prudent spending. “They went slow and figured out where the market was,” he says of his most recent producing effort. “The picture probably cost the studio $6.5 million, if that much, and the investor another $6.5 million. And it’s made $328 million worldwide. I’m sure everyone would like that ratio.”

In the meantime, the Spanish-speaking Medavoy has high hopes for a big-screen adaptation of Heraldo Munoz’s memoir “The Dictator’s Shadow,” which delves into Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s brutal reign.

“I think of life as a long-term learning experience,” Medavoy says of his need to revisit his past. “The learning ends when you take your last breath. Everything in between is basically a lesson.”

Billion-Dollar Producer: Mike Medavoy
International man of mastery | Medavoy plows past for projects | For Medavoy, politics are personal | Mike Medavoy’s highlight reel

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