British Hollywood director Simon West has been ordered by a Beijing tribunal to return $200,000 in directors fees to Chinese firm Hongmaisui HMS Entertainment in a legal dispute over an unmade 2014 film.
HMS filed the case with the Beijing Arbitration Commission back in 2016, after the production was derailed by difficulties in procuring a visa for West that left him unable to enter China for pre-production at the scheduled time. The commission issued its award decision in December 2019.
As of late July, however, West — who is best known for U.S. action films like “Con Air” and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” — has yet to pay the determined sum and has stopped communicating on the matter, the HMS side says.
On Tuesday, the company officially filed an arbitration petition in Los Angeles to get the American legal system to recognize the Chinese decision, allowing them to pursue and collect on West’s U.S.-based assets. With coronavirus backlogs clogging up the U.S. court system, that process could take anywhere from two months to a year.
“We’re in an industry where we have to be responsible,” said Allen Dam, a producer of the unmade film. “You took someone’s money, you took more than you deserve, and you have to pay back what doesn’t belong to you. Be a man, pay your debts; that’s all I want to say.”
West told Variety in an email that he was “not able to comment in detail” on the matter because “all of this is subject to strict confidentiality obligations.”
“I think it is sufficient to say that the entire dispute came about because the producers failed to perform in a timely manner their contractual obligations on a film I hoped to direct in China. There was no ‘court case’ and ‘no victory’ for the producers,” he said. “I have subsequently worked in China on a number of directing projects and I look forward to my next opportunity to visit and direct a film there.”
HMS CEO Zhang Xue told Variety: “Our current stance is that we hope he will implement the arbitration award as soon as possible to end this matter. We have been patiently waiting for him for more than half a year, but he has not yet acted and has stopped responding.”
She said if West continued to not take action, her company would seek other measures to try to stop him from working in China, but did not specify what steps could be taken.
Variety reviewed the Chinese arbitration award document, the U.S. arbitration petition filing in California, emails exchanged between the involved parties, and West’s original work contract for this report.
Along with Finnish helmer Renny Harlin (“Die Hard 2,” “Skiptrace”), West has become one of few Hollywood directors working now almost entirely in China. He recently directed two Chinese films: volcano disaster flick “Skyfire,” which grossed just $24 million in December, and the forthcoming Wanda Pictures-backed action film “The Legend Hunters,” which was initially scheduled to debut this summer, and is still without a release date though cinemas have begun to reopen.
HMS was the first Chinese company to hire West. The firm is a production company investing mostly in TV and live events, vaguely in the vein of Dick Clark Productions. Back in 2014, it was seeking to move into the movie business, but encountered a series of rocky starts. Its first venture was the ill-fated title “Great Mr. Zhou,” starring Jackie Chan’s son Jaycee Chan, who was jailed for six months in China for a drug offence before it could hit screens. Chinese authorities bury projects affiliated with “problematic” stars, and the film was shelved indefinitely.
West was supposed to direct HMS’s second move into cinema, “Legend of the Assassin.” At a planned budget of $30 million, it was one of the larger projects in China at the time. An adaptation of a popular online novel, it was supposed to tell the story of a mysterious assassin who turns out to be the famous Tang dynasty poet Li Bai, and hoped to put a Western twist on the popular Chinese wuxia martial arts genre by bringing on a foreign director. It-couple Zhou Xun (“Painted Skin”) and Archie Kao (“Chicago P.D.,” “CSI”) were at one point set to play the lead roles, according to Dam.
“It was so early on in the industry, when the money was hot and everyone was trying to get into China,” says Dam, who is still involved in the legal proceedings on behalf of Hongmaisui although he no longer works for the company.
The idea of bringing in a Western director to helm a Chinese blockbuster was still quite foreign at the time. HMS offered West $2.5 million to do the job, legal documents show. The sum was more than what he was making in Hollywood on projects like “The Mechanic” or “Expendables 2,” according to Dam.
Troubles arose, however, when it became difficult to procure a China visa for West to come inspect outdoor shooting locations and conduct other pre-production work, according to the Beijing Arbitration Commission award document seen by Variety.
The document outlines that West’s counsel argued that his contract was terminated “due to late payment by [HMS],” while the HMS side countered that it was “due to refusal by the director to provide director services.”
Either way, the visa struggles held up the production process until a point where West decided he was no longer interested in the project and wished to move on to other things, said the Beijing Arbitration Tribunal.
Although he reimbursed HMS $2 million in directors fees, West held on to an initial payment of $500,000 for pre-production work.
The Beijing tribunal ruled that the contract was terminated “due to a reason other than incompetence or breach of the directed,” saying that West stopped work because he couldn’t get a visa “due to multiple reasons” rather than because of an “intention of non-performance.”
The tribunal decided that West was entitled to 60% of the initial payment but should give back the rest, or $200,000, as well as pay approximately $4,000 of HMS’s approximately $10,000 arbitration costs within 15 days.
In January, according to HMS, the two sides agreed to drop the sum to $170,000, but West’s legal representatives allegedly stopped responding after HMS’s legal team sent over the settlement agreement and invoice.
“What I learned is really about contracts. If you were to redo this thing, you should sign it to the law of your client — you should sign it to British law, or U.S. law, instead of Chinese law,” says Dam, now an independent producer focused on co-productions. “In our contract, we had that one misstep. It’s bad luck.”