Defamation Lawsuit Against 'Hacksaw Ridge' Financier Revived by Appeals Court

Wei Han_Leo Shi Young_Split - Getty - H 2017
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A defamation fight centered on the rivalry between Kylin Pictures and Bliss Media is back on after a California appeals court found a rights-acquisition dispute over the Bruce Lee film Birth of the Dragon doesn't meet the public interest standard required by California's anti-SLAPP statute.

Bliss and its CEO Wei Han sued Kylin in January 2017, claiming its CFO Leo Shi Young defamed her and her company by referring to Han as a "swindler" and Bliss as a "shell company." Young was speaking at a press conference in China, during which he discussed the two companies' history regarding Birth of the Dragon, which had resulted in a previously settled lawsuit over acquisition rights, and another film called The King's Daughter.

Attorneys for Kylin asked the court to toss the suit, arguing that the statements were made in a public forum, concerning a matter of public interest — because the press conference was held to discuss a credit dispute over the critical darling and multiple-award-winner Hacksaw Ridge. Bliss, meanwhile, argued the statements concerned a private business dispute, not anything of public interest.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Terry Green in April 2017 granted Kylin's special motion to strike the complaint under California's anti-SLAPP statute, which brings an early end to frivolous lawsuits arising from constitutionally protected free speech regarding matters of public interest.

A California appeals court on Tuesday sided with Bliss, reversing Green's ruling and reviving the matter. The panel found that Han and Young's work in the Chinese film industry and in Hollywood hasn't put them "in the public eye" and that the statements don't affect a large number of people — but the majority of the analysis focuses on whether the statements concerned a matter of public interest.

The opinion, written by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Laura Seigle, notes that neither of the articles in which the allegedly defamatory statements were published highlighted the pic Hacksaw Ridge and questions the public interest in the other two films.

"[T]hey contend the public is specifically interested in Birth of the Dragon and The King’s Daughter because the first is about the martial arts legend Bruce Lee and the second features two movie stars," writes Seigle. "[D]efendants are unable to draw any connection between the public’s interest in Bruce Lee and the movie stars and the allegedly defamatory statements about financing and rights acquisition." 

Seigle also questions whether the limited media coverage of the press conference truly indicates a public interest in the matter. The court reversed the order granting the special motion to strike and awarded Bliss costs related to the appeal. 

Kylin attorney Andrew Brettler on Tuesday sent The Hollywood Reporter a statement in response to the decision. “The fact that THR is covering the story is further evidence that this was and is a matter of public interest," he says. "We disagree with the Court of Appeal’s finding that the statements allegedly made at the press conference concerned only a private business dispute, which is not protected by the anti-SLAPP statute. Regardless, at the end of the day, we are confident that Kylin will prevail on the merits of the case.”

The full opinion is posted below.