Shifting WB Chinese film venture not 'rudderless'

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CANNES -- Warner Bros. Pictures' Chinese film production joint venture is in transition because of an executive shuffle at the top level, but the Hollywood studio's managing director for China said no projects will be adversely affected.

Ellen Eliasoph, in a phone interview Tuesday from Shanghai, said she wished to dispel widespread market speculation that Warner China Film Hengdian Group, where she is one of three vps, had become -- as one concerned business partner put it -- "rudderless."

Speculation in Beijing, where the joint venture was formed in early 2005, was fueled by the departure last month of president Han Sanping, the envoy to the joint venture from the state-controlled China Film Group.

The challenge to find a replacement for Han comes as Eliasoph gets set for a move to Washington.

Sister company Warner Bros. International Cinemas divested from China in November after four years because of a change in government policy that limited its ownership of the theaters it was building.

Eliasoph said that it was "very, very hard" to do what Warner China Film is doing in a market "beaten down" by piracy and a lack of cinemas, releasing a film every six weeks since last summer, including the sleeper "Crazy Stone" by Ning Hao and the Edward Norton starrer "The Painted Veil."

She added that, while the joint venture had begun discussing finding a replacement for Han last year and was "not going to find anybody of his stature," the executive's departure did not leave the company adrift.

"What drives this company are the relationships with talent, which Han was so good at. But he never ran the company top down, so even as he leaves our creative team takes our exciting projects forward. We haven't stopped optioning properties," Eliasoph said.

This week, the company will submit to the Film Bureau for approval the script to "Crazy Racer," the sophomore effort from Ning, Eliasoph said. In January, Warner China Film signed a two-year, three-project, first-look deal with the director's representatives at CAA.

"This was the first time a Chinese film company built a talent deal along the Hollywood model," Eliasoph said.

Also going to the censors for initial approval this week is "Ransom," a police drama by director Yang Jiang, said Beaver Kwei, the joint venture's director of development.

The joint venture also is expecting the late-June delivery of a script based on "1421," a best-selling history published in English last year about a Chinese admiral who, in the 15th century, allegedly discovered the New World before Christopher Columbus.

Andre Morgan, co-producer of Hong Kong director Peter Chan's "The Warlords," shooting in China this year, is a business partner of Warner China Film and wanted to dispel the rumors about troubles at the joint venture

"I can assure you that nothing has changed in the PRC as it relates to 'The Warlords.' All of the same investors are in place including Warner China Film Hengdian," Morgan said via e-mail.

With regard to co-productions, which Eliasoph called "hard to shape" -- especially if they are set in China but shot in English -- Warner China Film from now on will put most of its effort into making Chinese-language films. The company learned the hard way about the difficulty of making successful co-productions; the English-language "Veil," based on a W. Somerset Maugham novel about an English doctor who treats a rural cholera epidemic in China before his own death, was, Eliasoph said, "a quality film and an interesting experiment, but a commercial disappointment."

As for who might replace Han as president, sources said that Hu Min, the joint venture's lone remaining full-time vp, is the top candidate likely to take over day-to-day operations. Hu is the joint venture's top representative from its third partner, the private Hengdian Group, a sprawling film studio outside Shanghai. Hu declined comment.

Eliasoph said that China Film Group has sent CFO Jiang Tao to be the joint venture's interim leader while the company conducts a search.

A Warner Bros spokesman based in Los Angeles said that Eliasoph will move from Shanghai to Washington in the coming weeks. Her husband, a former CFO in the U.S. consulate in Shanghai, recently was promoted inside the State Department and was called back to the U.S. capital.

"Ellen's going to focus on project development and delegate the distribution duties to somebody else in China," the spokesman said.

For his part, Han was called back from Warner China Film, where he remains chairman, for a promotion to China Film Group's chairmanship. He will replace Yang Buting, who will retire in June, a CFG official confirmed.

Han's promotion comes amid ambitious plans set in motion by the outgoing Yang to build a new studio in a Beijing suburb, to push to strengthen its international distribution and build a business out of overseas co-productions.

Meanwhile, Yang's quiet retirement as the head of CFG in mid-February was presided over by Madame Zhao Shi, vice minister of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, the CFG official said.

He will remain chairman of the China Film Distribution and Acquisition Assn. and chairman of China Film Promotion International, "overseeing the standardization of the market and its regulations," the official said.
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