The producer of “John Wick” has been ordered to pay $2.4 million to Huayi Bros. in connection with a failed attempt to release the violent action film in China.
Huayi Bros. agreed in 2013 to pay the producer a $1.5 million minimum guarantee to distribute the film in China, provided the movie made it past the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, the Chinese censorship body.
After the film was produced, in late 2014, state-run distributor China Film Group reported that the film was simply too violent to get a China release. Huayi Bros. asked the producer, a subsidiary of Basil Iwanyk’s Thunder Road Pictures, for the return of the $1.5 million.
That was the beginning of a conflict — which is still ongoing five years later — over whether the Chinese censorship agency had rejected the film, or if Huayi Bros. was merely refusing to exercise its considerable clout in China to push for a release because it feared the film would bomb.
Thunder Road refused the request to return the $1.5 million to Huayi Bros. In response, Huayi Bros. took the film back to China Film Group, which agreed to submit the film — without edits — to SARFT. In August 2015, SARFT screened the film and rejected it. Huayi Bros. then went back to Thunder Road to again insist on the return of the $1.5 million.
Thunder Road continued to refuse, which prompted Huayi Bros. to file an arbitration claim with the Independent Film and Television Alliance. After an unusually protracted arbitration hearing, which was held on 22 dates over the course of 18 months, arbitrator Michael R. Diliberto ruled in favor of Huayi Bros.
“Considering the totality of the evidence, especially the fact that after Huayi’s efforts to obtain censorship approval for the theatrical release of the Picture in China, the Picture was ultimately rejected by SARFT for censorship purposes, the arbitrator finds that (Thunder Road) breached the (agreement) by failing to pay Huayi,” Diliberto ruled.
Diliberto ordered Thunder Road to pay $1.5 million to Huayi Bros., plus more than $800,000 in attorneys fees.
On Friday, Thunder Road’s attorneys filed a petition to vacate the award in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Thunder Road’s attorney, Sonia Lee, contends that Huayi Bros. gave up on “John Wick” after the poor performance of two other Keanu Reeves films, “Ronin 47” and “Man of Tai Chi.” They allege that Huayi Bros. tried to use the censorship provision as a pretext to wriggle out of the distribution deal.
“The evidence in this case makes clear that Huayi has sufficient clout and influence to have the ‘bigger boss’ at CFG issue a quota slot and to have SARFT do what Huayi wishes,” Lee wrote in a filing last year. “The same evidence makes clear that Huayi easily could have had CFG issue a quota slot in 2014 and have SARFT approve John Wick for release in China, albeit with some edits… Had Huayi done what was supposed to have done in the first instance, Huayi – along with (Thunder Road) – would have made a tremendous amount of money, as did the distributors in all the other territories that released the movie – and its sequel.”
Neither “John Wick” nor its two sequels have been released in China.