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The Celluloid Prospector

Can an Independent Producer Turn Obscure Asian Films Into Hollywood Blockbusters? Roy Lee Finds Out With the Oct. 18 Debut of DreamWorks' "The Ring."

October 06, 2002|CHRIS WARREN | Chris Warren is a freelance writer living in Santa Monica.

An eerie quiet pervades Dimension Films' offices in West Hollywood. Mostly abandoned since the bulk of the studio's staff moved to new headquarters on Sunset Boulevard, the cavernous complex feels downright tomb-like compared to the typically frenetic pace of business at a studio such as Warner Bros. But Roy Lee isn't complaining as he picks a Japanese movie with a goofy title from a pile in his office and slips it into his DVD player. The opening credits roll for "Transparent: Tribute to a Sad Genius," and Lee--an independent film producer based at Dimension who sits behind an immaculately clean desk--folds his arms across his chest and focuses on the large-screen TV that dominates his back wall.

This is work for Lee. Unlike many producers and executives who pitch projects by phone or hustle to get the hottest available scripts, the 33-year-old Lee spends much of his time in solitude, wading through stacks of tapes and DVDs of Korean and Japanese movies, looking to find something a Hollywood studio might want to remake--with him as a producer, of course. Although he watches most of the films at home--he tries to see two or three a day--he has the kind of work setup that's ideal for viewing movie after movie. Besides the TV set and DVD player--both gifts from Asian companies he has worked with in the past--Lee also has a machine that inserts English subtitles, important because although he's of Korean descent, Lee doesn't speak or understand either Korean or Japanese.

During the past two years, Lee has carved out a niche for himself as the sole go-between for Korean and Japanese filmmakers eager to sell the remake rights to their movies and Hollywood executives scrounging to find new sources of commercial ideas. Since Lee first discovered Asia as an untapped reservoir for Hollywood-friendly concepts, he has helped broker the sale of 10 Korean and Japanese films. The first, a Japanese movie called "Ringu" ("The Ring"), was sold to DreamWorks for about $1 million in early 2001. The American version of the film, also called "The Ring" and featuring "Mulholland Dr." star Naomi Watts, hits theaters Oct. 18. Last October, Lee arranged the first-ever purchase of the remake rights of a Korean movie by an American studio; Miramax paid almost $1 million for the action-comedy "My Wife Is a Gangster," for which a script is being written.

All this has raised Lee's profile in Hollywood--he and his partner, Doug Davison, last year were awarded office space and a first-look deal by Dimension, a Miramax-owned studio that has developed "Spy Kids" and the "Scream" movies--and it has transformed him into a veritable Lew Wasserman in much of the Asian film community. "All Korean film people know him and, as far as I know, everyone is approaching him regarding the remake rights potential of their films," says Josh Lee (no relation to Roy), senior manager for international business at Cinemaservice, a Korean film company.

Their interest is understandable: the checks Hollywood is writing for their movies is enough to cover the entire budget of some originals. Not surprisingly, Lee is being inundated with movies from across the Pacific, typically receiving 10 per week. Some filmmakers can't even wait until they shoot their movies. "I'm getting scripts from directors, saying, 'What do you think of this? Do you think you could sell the remake rights after we make the movie?' "

Lee tries to read and watch some of everything sent to him. With its opening credits finished, "Transparent" begins in dramatic fashion: a plane crashes into a desolate forest; a fleet of helicopters crosses the sky, presumably on its way to find survivors. That Lee has quickly made a place for himself in the Hollywood system by peddling obscure Asian movies like this one raises some intriguing questions about the state of the movie industry today. Has Hollywood run out of fresh ideas? Has the industry's obsession with making movies with international appeal made it more receptive to ideas that have already proven themselves with foreign crowds? It's probably a little of both. What's clear, though, is that Roy Lee, through instinct and maybe a little luck, is in a perfect position to take full advantage.

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