Martin Scorsese's 'The Irishman' Lands Distributor in China

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Martin Scorsese

The long-gestating project, which unites Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, would be Scorsese's first gangster film to get a release in China, where he was once banned.

Hong Kong-based Media Asia has secured the rights to distribute Martin Scorsese's forthcoming gangster epic The Irishman in China.

It will be the first release of a Scorsese crime film in the teeming Chinese film market, where the veteran director has had an occasionally patchy history with the country's authorities.

Marking Scorsese's much-anticipated return to the gangster genre, The Irishman unites Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, with De Niro playing Frank Sheeran, a high-ranking Teamsters official with ties to the Bufalino crime family. Shortly before his death in 2003, Sheeran confessed that he killed fellow Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, whose body has never been found. He also claimed that it was Hoffa who wanted John F. Kennedy killed.

STX Entertainment won a fierce bidding war to handle foreign rights to the project at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The China deal was negotiated by Media Asia’s general manager Fred Tsui and STX’s president of international sales John Friedberg.

Many of the Scorsese's classic works were released long before China was any kind of box office consideration for the Hollywood studios. But much has changed since then. China is now the world's second-largest film market, and the country is expected to surpass North America as the biggest box office territory sometime in the next three years.

In 1997, Scorsese was temporarily banned from entering China after the international release of his Dalai Lama biopic, Kundun, which Chinese authorities found profoundly objectionable on political grounds, given their official stance that the Tibetan spiritual leader is a dangerous separatist figure. The picture seriously damaged business relationships between China and The Walt Disney Co., which had produced and distributed the film over Beijing's objections. Relations weren't normalized until the studio apologized, as part of the negotiation process leading up to the creation of Shanghai Disneyland. Scorsese's status in China was rehabilitated when his 3D adventure film Hugo was given a brief release in 2012. 

Most of Scorsese's other recent works — The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Shutter Island (2010) and The Departed (2006) — probably would have been deemed too violent or risque for China's censors had they been submitted for consideration. At the least, they would have required cuts. China has no ratings system, so regulators approve or deny films on an up-down basis for consumption by moviegoers of all ages.

But Media Asia says it is confident The Irishman will clear China's censorship committee. "We read the script, which, by the way, is brilliant," said Fred Tsui. "Like other Scorsese films, the violence is not as excessive as other Hollywood action film[s] that grace the screens in China."

Fabrica de Cine is fully financing The Irishman's $100 million budget, with Paramount handling North American distribution. As one of Hong Kong's leading studios, Media Asia will be a strong advocate for the picture in the Middle Kingdom. The company's most recent release, crime thriller Line Walker, is currently leading the Chinese box office. Incidentally, Media Asia was also the studio behind Infernal Affairs, the trilogy of cult Hong Kong crime films that were remade by Scorsese as The Departed, his first Oscar winner. 

"We are as honored as we are excited to have the opportunity to bring this prestigious project to the audience in China," Tsui added. "The film has every indication of becoming a magnum opus that will go down in film history as one of the best gangster flicks ever made."