Relativity’s Kavanaugh a No-Show at Upbeat U.S.-China Film Summit

Relativity chief absent following Chinese co-production kerfuffle

Just 48 hours after controversy began to swirl around his studio's much ballyhooed Chinese co-production/distribution arrangement, Ryan Kavanaugh canceled his appearance at a four-person panel at the Asia Society’s U.S.-China Film Summit Tuesday.

The panel’s moderator blamed it on a scheduling conflict.

On Sunday, TheWrap reported that human rights groups had rebuked Relativity following the studio's decision to film its upcoming co-produced comedy "21 and Over" in a Chinese city with an oppressive government.

Also read: Human Rights Groups Rebuke Relativity Over Chinese Co-Production (Updated)

If any of the 300 film industry types who filled a theater at the Landmark complex in West Los Angeles Tuesday for the event surmised Kavanaugh's absence had something to do with that, no one present was vocal about it.

It was left to seasoned producer and executive David Linde — who as president of Good Machine International at the time, made Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon,” a $235 million worldwide success — to be hailed as the key pioneer in a fusion between Chinese and American filmmaking that’s still moving grudgingly. 

Deflecting the praise of panel moderator Bennett Pozil, who oversaw the film’s financing at East West Bank, Linde claimed he brought the movie to life with pre-sales around the world mostly because, “I was young and stupid and eager and excited.”

Just as crucially, he said, his partnership with Lee on such  earlier, smaller global successes as  “Eat Drink Man Woman,” meant that foreign rights buyers “knew that when we knocked on the door, it was their chance to stay in business with a guy who’d had not only artistic but real commercial success.”

Only 5 percent of the "Crouching Tiger's" worldwide gross was in China, Linde said. He added, however, "People who might have been familiar with Chinese [martial arts] genre films and the country’s art house films hadn’t previously realized there could be a real marriage between the two.”

Joining Linde on the panel, along with Janet Yang (“The Joy Luck Club” and the upcoming “Shanghai Calling”) and filmmaker Dayyan Eng (whose fully Chinese-funded production stars Kevin Spacey) was writer-producer Tom DeSanto, a creative force behind global blockbusters “Transformers” and “X-Men”.

In fact, as China grinds its way from being the world’s second most prosperous market for blockbusters (and fourth globally for all box office) and towards what most observers believe will be No. 1 stature in a few years, the mood was upbeat and apolitical.

The panelists agreed that for all the progress that seems within reach, time is still needed. And China’s 7,000 cinemas, which have been proliferating at the pace of six per day, are still inadequate to answer the demand from audiences in the country that’s now around 1.33 billion in population.

Linde's Lava Bear Films, which has a hand in Zhang Yimou’s upcoming “Heroes of Nanking” starring Christian Bale, was greeted as something of a pioneer and hero when introduced to  appear on the afternoon’s second panel, “Bridging the Creative Gap”.

Echoing sentiments from producer Dan Mintz (whose "Looper” with Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a Chinese-American co-production), Linde noted that the real growth in a teamed Sino-American film industry will only come when there’s a real cultural cross-fertilization by filmmakers.

Linde said that American producers “need to find ways to interact (with the Chinese) in a progressive and proactive way … by focusing on each other’s culture. Then we can expand the potential of any movie. That’s been my great lesson.”

DeSanto self-deprecatingly said he’d  adapted “Transformers” “from the original Shakespeare,” and that even he was surprised that after “every studio in town” initially passed on the franchise, the Chinese and other audiences would embrace a film in which cars turned into robots “and solved the world’s problems by punching each other out … but seeing kids in China wearing Bumble  Bee tee shirts, I realized the commonality of our cultures.”

He added, however, that he skipped the chicken feet served at a celebratory banquet in Beijing.