EXCLUSIVE: Even before Sony Pictures secured a January 13 release date to open Passengers in China, the cast and producers barnstormed the film in Beijing. After opening just OK domestically in the teeth of stiff holiday film competition, Passengers‘ hopes for profitability might well now rest on China. Producer Stephen Hamel told Deadline that beyond the Morten Tyldum-directed Jennifer Lawrence/Chris Pratt sci-fi film, Company Films is betting large on the Middle Kingdom, stacking up numerous projects all geared to be shot in China. Hamel, who hatched most of these projects, partners in Company Films with Keanu Reeves, for whom the Jon Spaihts Passengers script was originally developed.
Hamel, a still photographer when he first met Reeves on the film River’s Edge, said he spent a third of 2016 in Beijing and that Company will soon open an office there to press a slate of English- and Mandarin-language film and TV projects. The Company partners began their creative relationship with Passengers. Even though Reeves didn’t take producing credit after exiting as star, Hamel said Reeves “had an enormous hand in developing what everyone considers to be one of the best scripts in Hollywood of the past decade.”
Reeves will be the star of Company’s next effort, the Cannonball Run-in-China road movie Rally Car, which Hamel said will shoot this summer from Jeremy Lott’s script. Olivier Megaton is now set to direct. The film, which like Passengers percolated for years, now has backing from China-based Fundamental Films, and they are in the final throes of securing U.S. distribution, with Lionsgate is in pole position. Hamel produces with Mark Gao.
“The film goes from Shanghai to the Gobi Desert to the Himalayas, featuring China’s most compelling landscapes and most beautiful places to shoot,” Hamel said. “Keanu plays the star driver, matched with a 19-year-old Chinese girl, who’s his co-pilot. There are Mexican, Chinese, German, Italian and Australian teams and we were in the process of assembling that cast.”
Tim Webber, the Oscar-winning VFX wiz behind Gravity, is set to direct Unmanned, a sci-fi film Hamel said will soon secure commitments from a major Chinese studio, U.S. distributor, director and star. It will shoot on Wanda’s sound stages, and on locations in Hong Kong and Mainland China. The film had been fodder for a New Yorker article on STX last year that implied the distributor was moving toward a deal; Hamel said that while that company is a contender, so are several other distributors vying for a film Hamel said will shoot in the fall. It’s a mission movie revolving around human soldiers teamed with the robotic drones that will soon render the human soldiers obsolete.
Hamel said Company is also in business with Lost In Thailand writer Shu Huan on an untitled Chinese-language science fiction film; Company is partnered with Vice Films on Parischina, a drama about a young Chinese girl and an American man who don’t speak the same language and get stuck together in the middle of nowhere, in China; and there is also the Chinese-language Looking For Aladdin, an adventure quest to find the lost lamp of Aladdin, set with FangJin Media.
On the TV side, there is New Shanghai, a sci-fi Chinese language TV drama Hamel is producing with Jacky Pang and Wong Kar Wai; and The Bruce Lee Project, a Chinese-language reality TV series based on competitions that weave in the teachings of the famed martial artist. Hamel is producing with Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee, Larry Namer and Michael Benaroya.
While all Hollywood hustles to find footing in China, Hamel said the straightest path is to connect with financiers and filmmakers on strong stories. “You learn that you have to be there, first of all, because emails only go so far,” Hamel said. “China is filled with dreamers who are open to new potential, new ideas and ways of doing things, if the approach is through stories and finding ways to communicate and build connective tissue through narratives. That is the way I’ve been able to create relationships and opportunities for collaboration.”
WME reps the Company Films partners in its charge into China.