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Crouching studios, hidden contract?

Who has the rights for sequels to Ang Lee's film is up to a Canadian court. Both Columbia, Weinstein say they do.

May 07, 2007|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

His name is Hong Wang, a Chinese-born agricultural research scientist who works in a small town in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.

He's also the unlikely key figure in a high-stakes Hollywood drama that is taking place far from the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown.

Columbia Pictures and the Weinstein Co. are battling in court to see which will win the potentially lucrative follow-up to Ang Lee's epic martial-arts film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," one of the most successful foreign movies of all time.

The film, which Sony Pictures Classics released in 2000 in North America, grossed $213.5 million worldwide, took in $20 million in home video rentals and received 10 Academy Award nominations, capturing four Oscars, including one for best foreign film.

Wang is the son of Chinese author Wang Du Lu, who wrote the novel upon which the film was based.

It is the son's negotiations with the two powerhouse movie companies that are at the heart of the case.

When the author died in 1977, he left behind close to 40 books, including a number of martial-arts novels. Among these are five novels collectively known as "The Crane-Iron Pentology," of which "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is the fourth. The remaining books are "Flying Stork, Shaking Kunlun," "Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin," "Legendary Sword, Brilliant Pearls" and "Iron Rider, Silver Vase."

In a strange twist, the litigation seeks to determine whether Wang granted both Columbia and the Weinstein Co. the film rights to the remaining books in the series: Columbia claims it has a binding oral agreement with Wang; the Weinsteins say they have one in writing.

Son Hong Wang and his sister, Qin Wang, a retired math professor who lives in Beijing, control the audiovisual rights to the books. Their mother, who also lives in China, is in her 90s.

Despite the movie's blockbuster success, Hong Wang said in a court affidavit that his family received only $30,000 in direct compensation for selling the rights to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." As a result, he said, the family decided to "take greater care" when negotiating the rights to the other novels.

"Since the release of 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' my mother, my sister and I have been anxious for more movies to be made based on the four books before the copyright in my father's works expires," Wang added in his affidavit, which is filed in a Canadian court in Regina, Saskatchewan.

He added: "It was always understood -- and my sister and I always proceeded on that basis -- that neither of us would sign any agreements respecting the works without the approval of the other on the final terms of such agreements."

But both movie companies contend they have enforceable contracts to purchase the rights to the four books.

Columbia, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment, filed suit against Wang and the Weinstein Co. in Regina last year, seeking $200 million in damages.

The studio claimed it had an oral agreement with Wang. But Wang insists he made no such agreement with the Culver City-based studio.

"I emphatically deny that any binding agreement was ever entered into between me and Columbia/Sony," Wang stated in his affidavit.

Wang's attorney, Robert W. Leurer of Regina, said he was not at liberty to discuss the case and declined a request for his client to be interviewed for this report.

But Robert Geary, senior executive vice president of business affairs at Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, stated in a sworn affidavit: "There is no doubt in my mind that both Dr. Wang and I had an agreement on all of the fundamental terms that would be typically placed into an agreement of this kind."

Columbia maintains that it had negotiated with Wang through e-mails and phone calls.

The studio contends the remaining terms of the deal were hammered out in a telephone call between Geary and Wang on Sept. 28, 2005, and that Geary even made notes to himself that said the deal was "closed."

Wang said that he never reached a binding agreement with Columbia and, anyway, that he wouldn't have done so without the consent of his sister.

On the other side, Timothy Schmidt, who was senior vice president of business affairs for the Weinstein Co. last May when the company submitted his sworn affidavit in court, stated: "The claim by Columbia Pictures both slanders and clouds the Weinstein Co.'s interest in the Wang rights and interferes with the Weinstein Co.'s agreements and opportunities to exploit the rights."

He added that the "threatened harm to the Weinstein Co. cannot be fully calculated in dollars."

The Weinsteins, meanwhile, claim their company entered an agreement with Wang on Dec. 12, 2005, giving the film company the option to acquire the motion picture, television, publishing and other rights in the books.

The four remaining books would be key film properties for either company.

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