Valenti hug breaks ice with China

WASHINGTON — Just six weeks after his agency called for a temporary embargo on business dealings with three Hollywood studios, China’s Radio, Film and TV Minister Sun Jia Zheng locked Motion Picture Assn. of America president Jack Valenti in a long embrace.

The public display of affection took place Thursday at the MPAA’s D.C. headquarters during a dinner commemorating the opening night of the Chinese Film Festival sponsored by the Motion Picture Assn. — the MPAA’s international arm. Witnesses to the hug spontaneously burst into applause, which perhaps represented a release of tension stemming from the recent standoff between China and the studios.

Last month China took it on the chin when Columbia TriStar released “Seven Years in Tibet” just weeks before MGM released “Red Corner.”

“Seven Years” depicted a harsh picture of China’s invasion and occupation of Tibet, and “Red Corner” did not pull any punches in its depiction of the Chinese justice system.

Adding fuel to the fire was “Red Corner” star Richard Gere, who claimed on national television that it was “no coincidence” that the film was released during the visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Purely coincidental

MGM execs denied emphatically that the release was coordinated to coincide with the state visit and Gere later told Daily Variety that the movie’s premiere and Zemin’s arrival were coincidental.

But Hollywood’s not through with China yet. Slated for release later this month is Disney’s release of Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun,” which takes another swing at China’s harsh treatment of Tibet and the Dalai Lama in particular.

In response to the three pics, Jia Zheng’s agency issued a memo calling for a temporary moratorium on all “business cooperation” with MGM, Columbia TriStar and Disney.

Despite the memo, it is not clear if any of the companies have suffered setbacks, temporary or otherwise, in China.

Now Valenti hopes that his embrace with Jia Zheng, recorded by Chinese television, has marked a turning point in the relationship between Hollywood and China. Not only do the American movie studios want greater access to a market that includes 1.2 billion people, he is also pitching Chinese officials on the willingness of U.S. studios to invest in co-productions.

Valenti will be able to make his argument in person later this month when he has a trip scheduled to China to push for greater cooperation between Hollywood and China. On hearing about the impending visit, Jia Zheng promised to clear his schedule to chaperone Valenti.

“They liked it very much that I was personally going over to China,” said Valenti., “I think that was pleasing to their ears.”

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