When a U.S. company filed suit over an Orlando Bloom heist film in 2016, it was presented as a classic case of a Chinese producer failing to live up to a written agreement.
Two years later, the truth of the situation seems closer to the reverse. The Chinese producer, Bliss Media, won a $1.2 million arbitration award against the American producer, who was found to have given false assurances about a director’s availability.
The conflict concerns “S.M.A.R.T. Chase,” which delivered a disappointing $2.6 million at the Chinese box office, and which was retitled “The Shanghai Job” for its VOD release. Das Films, the Santa Monica-based company behind the Pierce Brosnan film “November Man,” initially signed on to co-produce, but was fired after six months. Das Films filed suit in L.A. Superior Court, accusing Bliss of breaching the agreement, and the case was later transferred to arbitration.
In a 19-page ruling, the arbitrator held that Sriram Das, president of Das Films, took advantage of Bliss CEO Wei Han, whom he “plainly disliked.” The arbitrator found that Das’ conduct caused a substantial delay in shooting the film, which meant that it could not open in China during the lucrative summer months. The arbitrator also held that Han was justified in severing their agreement, and awarded her costs and attorneys fees.
The ill-fated production began at the American Film Market in November 2015, when Han met Das at his office there. Han had a script for an action film, then called “The Dragon and the Phoenix,” which she had been developing for several years. Das had long wanted to shoot a film in Shanghai, and said he could secure director Roger Donaldson, who had shot “November Man.” Han agreed to a co-production, with shooting to begin in the spring of 2016 in time for release in the summer of 2017.
Over the next several weeks, Das and Han exchanged messages about securing talent for the film. Han wanted Chinese actress Fan Bingbing to star, and wanted to set up a meeting between her and Donaldson. Das, however, said that Donaldson was shooting a documentary in a remote part of New Zealand, and was unavailable. A few days later, Das Films suggested that filming might not begin until June, causing Han to raise concerns that she might not be able to keep her Asian cast in the event of delays.
Das Films also retained screenwriter Derek Kolstad (“John Wick”) to rewrite the script. On a scouting trip to Shanghai in March 2016, Han became alarmed that Kolstad did not bring the rewritten script. Kolstad said it was “all in his mind,” according to Han’s testimony. Han also became angry at Das because Donaldson did not make the trip. Das had prevented her from communicating directly with Donaldson, and she was growing increasingly worried about his participation in the project. She told Das that she had actors lined up on pay-or-play deals for the summer, and that Donaldson would have to show up in China soon to get familiar with the location.
“Otherwise we will be in trouble,” Han wrote to Das. “I put a lot of trust in you so far. Please make it happen.”
Han was born and raised in China, and educated in the U.S. She worked in finance and completed slate deals before launching her production company. She is described in the ruling as “confident, very smart, ambitious, accomplished, yet at times somewhat naive.” Das is described as a “savvy, professional, tough businessman.”
In emails, he displayed contempt for Han and her team, calling them “crazy” and “idiots.” He also did not mention to Han that he was on the hook for a pay-or-play deal with Donaldson on “November Man 2,” but Brosnan did not want to work with Donaldson again. Das initially told Han that he could get Donaldson for $1 million, and Han balked when the director demanded $1.75 million. Das talked her into the higher figure by promising that once the deal was closed, “he will come to China.”
Han and Donaldson finally spoke by phone for the first time in late March. He said he would come to Shanghai in April, but would not be ready to begin pre-production until July, and could not start shooting until October.
“THIS IS OUTRAGEOUS!” Han said in an email to Das. “Das Films could have informed us about Roger’s unavailability A LONG TIME AGO, saving us the time and money we have now lost due to this meaningless and completely avoidable delay on schedule.”
In a subsequent email terminating their relationship, Han blasted Das for various “problems that have plagued our development process.” “You seem to have no urgency about our schedule,” she wrote. “You even allowed the writer to deliver his first draft late and the quality of what he delivered was terrible.”
Bliss then hired a new writer and director, and filming got underway that fall. The film was not completed in time for the summer of 2017, when foreign films are excluded from Chinese theaters. The film flopped upon its release that fall.
“Han had a good idea for a film, but she made a fatal mistake,” wrote arbitrator Terry Friedman. The mistake, he wrote, was meeting Das and trusting that he would deliver on his promises. “Han’s mistake was not her fault, but it cost her substantial out-of-pocket losses.”
Friedman awarded $522,787 in damages and $695,457 in attorneys’ fees and costs. Bliss’ attorneys, at the firm of Akin Gump, filed a petition Thursday in L.A. Superior Court to confirm the award.