Warners, Yari clash over 'Veil'

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As awards season heats up, a dispute has broken out between producer Bob Yari, one of the producers of last year's Oscar-winning "Crash," and Warner Bros. over the Oscar potential of "The Painted Veil," starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts.

Debates between the filmmakers and Warners over the final cut of the film -- in which China, where the movie was shot, had final say -- delayed delivery of the finished print. The producer is unhappy with the studio's support for the film to date. At one point, Yari even offered to buy the film back from the studio.

Warner Bros. president Alan Horn said the studio has faith in the movie, and the Oscar campaign has been hampered only by the delays stemming from the deal producers made to shoot in China.

"Veil" is a lushly mounted $21 million period drama, shot on location deep inside China, based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel about a British doctor and his wife and how their marriage is tested when they travel to a remote Chinese village in the midst of a cholera epidemic.

Warner Independent Pictures will open "Veil" in Los Angeles and New York on Dec. 20, when it also will bow in Beijing and Shanghai. The plan is to roll it out further Dec. 29 in both the U.S. and China.

"Veil" has the pedigree of an Oscar contender: Norton has received two previous acting nominations, while Watts has earned one. It was written by Ron Nyswaner, an Oscar nominee for "Philadelphia." The National Board of Review included it among its top 10 films of the year, it grabbed two Film Independent Spirit Award nominations for best actor and screenplay, and last week it earned a Golden Globe nom for its score by Alexandre Desplat.

But unlike other Oscar contenders that first surfaced at the fall film festivals, "Veil's" prospects might have been hampered by the debate over its final cut, which delayed delivery until Nov. 14. As the clocked ticked away, Warners even threatened to push the movie back to March. WIP's screening program and "for your consideration" trade ads began late and have been limited.

Yari, who successfully released the Norton-starring "The Illusionist" himself this year, asked Warners to let him buy back the film. "The team at WIP is unbelievably supportive of the movie, but they have been handicapped and restrained from above," said Yari, who financed 80% of the project. "We're a small company putting a campaign behind 'The Illusionist.' Compare the two. I said, 'Let me release 'Painted Veil,' I'll do it for free.' They don't care. Someone up there wants the film buried."

Horn told Yari he could buy back the film if he wanted to, but, Horn said, "We didn't hear back. It didn't go anywhere." Buying back North American rights would have cost Yari, by studio estimates, about $4.5 million.

Yari also offered to supplement the studio's marketing campaign, but wanted to recoup his costs before the studio, which only put Warners "at further risk," according one WIP source. The producer's other offers for additional advertising funding were met with skepticism by the studio.

There are a number of factors that might be playing a role in how Warners has decided to promote "Veil."

For one thing, Warners is fielding a strong lineup of bona fide Oscar contenders, including "The Departed," "Letters from Iwo Jima" and "Happy Feet." Horn also has Oscar hopes for the $100 million African adventure "Blood Diamond."

"We have an awful lot of movies," Horn said, "and 'Painted Veil' has a relatively modest budget. It's a terrific, well-made movie that's emotional and about something, an interesting and different film. We need to get it seen by people. A lot of critical reviews are not in. There's time to push it if it resonates with the critical community. We'll see."

Said Norton: "When the studios are in for a penny, they're in for a pound. When you're giving them product, then their nose is in the wind a lot more. If it smells good, they'll run with it. But if it doesn't, they're not invested in it."

"Veil" might also be handicapped because it is a holdover from the previous WIP regime led by Mark Gill, who brought the script to the studio after a stint producing films with the Yari Film Group. Over the demurrals of his supervisor, Warners production president Jeff Robinov, Gill convinced Horn to greenlight the movie.

Gill's clashes with Robinov eventually led to Gill's departure from WIP in May, but before he left, he assembled the elements for "Veil." Initially, Gill lured director Caroline Link ("Nowhere in Africa"), Norton and Watts. The actress left the project after Nicole Kidman briefly expressed interest, but Gill brought Watts back on board with director John Curran, who had made WIP's "We Don't Live Here Anymore" with Watts.

In order to shoot the film in China, Gill negotiated a deal with Warner China Film HG Corp., a co-venture among Warner Bros., the China Film Group and Hengdian Group that was created in 2004. In exchange for official co-production status, Warner China, which is 30% owned by Warners, awarded the Chinese government the right of final cut of the picture for the world. Warner China paid $1.8 million to acquire the film for release in China.

According to Yari, he agreed to that deal with the proviso that if the filmmakers were not happy with the final cut, they could return the $1.8 million and take back the film. The filmmakers and the Chinese went over the screenplay in advance and agreed to trim back some of the material involving Chinese-on-Chinese conflict and crowds of protesters.

After a long postproduction editing process, during which the film was considerably restructured, "Veil" was submitted to the Chinese government censors. They demanded more cuts, to which Warner China and WIP agreed, according to WIP senior vp production and acquisitions Paul Federbush. But Curran and Norton refused to accept all the edits. Norton went so far as to approach Time Warner chairman and CEO Richard Parsons, a family friend, for help.

Horn received a phone call from another Time Warner executive on Parsons' behalf, but Horn insisted that it made no difference. "We gave worldwide final cut to the government," he said. "That's the deal the producers made because they wanted to shoot in China. It's about honoring a deal. Final cut is final cut. There were arguments about restoring 38 seconds over six scenes. We didn't feel that was much of a problem. It's subjective. Is it a lot or a little? They had spirited dialogue. That dialogue resulted in some things being restored. But at the end of the day, the decision was up to the Chinese."

"This film is a valiant attempt at a Chinese co-production in a very difficult environment," Yari said. "The Chinese are on the verge of opening up to Western filmmaking and exhibition in their country. This was a groundbreaking film bringing a Western sensibility to their world, which has tightly controlled public information. Warners finally did step in and help."

Warner China went back "at great risk to the people who work in the joint venture," Federbush said. "They asked for a compromise, which is something you don't do. But they did. That allowed Norton and Curran to move on." After Warner China argued for and won a few concessions from the government, the filmmakers also made a few small cuts, and the situation was resolved. "What John, Ron and I wanted," said Norton, "we achieved. We held the line on the things we cared about. I feel good about that."

To kick start an awards season campaign, WIP marketing chief Laura Kim scrambled to create unfinished screeners for the critics' groups and the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., but Watts was not available to do guild Q & As and press until the week of Dec. 12, due to her shooting new films by Michael Haneke and David Cronenberg. Thousands of DVDs were shipped to the guilds and the Academy by the end of last week.

"The print was delayed because of the censorship issue," Federbush said. "It would have been fine if we didn't have that."

Jonathan Landreth in Beijing contributed to this report.
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