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Disney Stands Firm on Dalai Lama Film

November 27, 1996|JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Walt Disney Co. made it clear Tuesday that it will go ahead with plans for U.S. distribution of director Martin Scorsese's upcoming film about Tibet's Dalai Lama even though the decision will no doubt displease officials in China, where Disney wants to expand its business.

A Disney spokesman, John Dreyer, said the company will fulfill its obligation to distribute the movie in theaters in the U.S. "We have an agreement to distribute the film and we will honor it," Dreyer said.

Disney never said it wouldn't distribute the movie, but it raised concerns in Hollywood last week by hesitating to throw its full public support behind the film after China's displeasure became known.

Disney had been declining to comment on the issue. Reports of China's unhappiness with the film project first surfaced in a story published last week in London's Financial Times.

Hollywood executives said that once the issue became public, Disney had no choice but to back the filmmaker. Had Disney washed its hands of the film, they noted, the potential damage to the company in Hollywood's creative community would have far outweighed whatever business opportunities China presents. Scorsese, whose work includes "Raging Bull" and "Taxi Driver," is one of the film industry's most respected directors, and is set to receive the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award.

The film, "Kundun," is one of two movies Hollywood is making about the Dalai Lama, the other being "Seven Years in Tibet" at Sony Pictures' TriStar unit. "Kundun" is being made at Disney under a long-term production deal Scorsese has at the studio.

Both movies are expected to be sympathetic to the exiled Tibetan leader, who won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against Chinese domination of his homeland. A Chinese official with that country's Ministry of Radio, Film and Television said last week that it is "resolutely opposed" to the movie because it "is intended to glorify the Lama," adding that it would be meddling in China's internal affairs.

The Dalai Lama is a popular figure of late in Hollywood, with his cause embraced by such stars as Harrison Ford, Richard Gere and Steven Seagal.

Last week, Disney sources initially said the company only had an "option" to distribute the film, but they have since corrected that to make it clear that the studio is the movie's domestic distributor. Disney also acknowledges that it is helping to finance the movie.

Chinese officials recently told Disney that they are unhappy about the movie being made, implying that Disney's plans to expand into China may be threatened.

Disney has been interested in potential expansion of such things as films, TV programs and merchandise sales in China, considered by Hollywood to be the greatest untapped entertainment market in the world. Rumors have circulated for years that Disney is interested in building a theme park there, although company executives have cautioned that numerous questions about ownership and other matters would have to be be addressed before it would begin to consider such a project.

Disney President Michael Ovitz has been especially active in trying to develop business for Disney in China, traveling there to meet with top officials.

Disney sources and others said they believe that in the end China will want Disney's product, noting that such movies as "The Lion King" were popular there. Scorsese, who is on location in Morocco, could not be reached for comment. His talent agency, Creative Artists Agency, referred calls to Disney.

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