Feb 27, 2020
Brendan Davis is a writer-director-producer working internationally in film & TV. He began his entertainment career in Atlanta in 1990, moved to Los Angeles in 2002, and has split his time between Beijing and Los Angeles since 2013. In December 2019, Davis was recognized for his cross-cultural leadership by being appointed to serve as a Distinguished Special Foreign Expert with the Beijing Global Talent Exchange Association. His appointment as an advisor runs through 2024.
“Pick your battles carefully. Set yourself up for success as much as possible.”
In 2013/14, China was wide open to foreign investment co-productions trying to work with other treaty partners. One of the countries the Chinese were the keenest to work with was New Zealand. Brendan happened to have two partners in New Zealand and a Chinese partner in Los Angeles. The partners had been working on a project together for a while now. He figured that this project would be a good co-production with China. And so he decided to explore this international partnership.
The project was initially developed as a Western New Zealand Hollywood type of project. So the first step was to change the script to fit the co-production requirements of New Zealand and China. Due to cultural differences, censorship, and sensitivities in China, they had to re-examine and rebuild the whole story and characters.
For the project to receive the co-production incentives, Brendan had to find a Chinese financier. Through former colleagues and his Chinese partner, he found someone who fit the bill. The gentleman was a second-generation wealthy guy in China and a Vice President of a big studio film finance entity. He was one of the guys deciding where to spend money. The gentleman had been rewarded for his success so far, with a few 50% government investments in a new firm all his own to develop and produce projects. So he was just getting going with this new company when Brendan and his project came along. And it seemed like they were the answer to each other’s dreams.
Because Brendan at the time barely spoke any Chinese and the gentleman spoke zero English, they each got an interpreter. Brendan and his team went to Beijing, met him, liked each other, and things got onto a great start. The gentleman had very fancy offices. He was seemingly very rich and powerful. Everything about him validated that he would be the guy to do this. He even gave them a suite of offices in his fancy custom design, new headquarters building.
The business plan seemed to be coming together very smoothly. After a couple of back and forth trips between Beijing and LA, and discussions, they signed a deal that detailed everything about how Brendan and his team were supposed to operate, and it also spelled out exactly what the financier was committing to do as the executive producer and a financier.
As Brendan and his partner were preparing to leave China to start pre-production, the gentleman told them that they would appear at the 2014 Beijing Film Festival to make the big announcement of their partnership together. The gentleman built for his company a very fancy booth. They did dozens of interviews in English and Chinese, took many photos, and told many stories. There were about 80 photographers at their press conference. It was a pretty big public deal.
But the troubles started immediately after that press conference. They were sitting at their booth just catching their breath when this angry, short little woman who they’d never met, never heard of, and had no idea who she was appeared out of nowhere. She introduced herself as a friend of the gentleman. She was freaking out and grilling Brendan with creative issues she had with the story. Brendan was shocked to learn that this stranger knew all these delicate details of their business. It turned out; she was meant to buy the gentleman time to get his act together.
It turns out that the gentleman’s father, from where his power and wealth is derived, got caught up in a corruption scandal. He lost his influence in his high position and was likely going to go to jail. All this mess was trickling down to the son who was about to lose everything. He was desperately covering it as fast as he could.
The gentleman could no longer afford to finance the project, and just like that, the project died an abrupt death. He kept Brendan and his team completely in the dark about the true nature of the situation for over six months. Had they known this, they would have pivoted to somebody else and probably salvaged the project.
Cultural differences are very real around the world. Business deals and contracts could have completely different meanings from what you’re used to. So, understand the cultural differences first before you sign any deal.
The best way to apply foreign risk management is to only work with people with whom you can have trust and full, clear communication.
Some deals can be too complex for you to handle. If that’s the case, never be afraid to walk away from such deals.
A lot could be happening behind the scenes without your knowledge unless you’re working with someone you know and trust. People will always try to put on their best face when making a deal. Never believe they’re truly genuine until the money is in the bank.
Don’t be afraid to investigate your intended investment, because you never know what’s going on behind the scenes.
Develop empathy for the people you’re working with. Make sure that you truly have a clear understanding of where your other party in the deal is coming from, and then tailor your strategy accordingly. Continue to be empathetic, keep your eyes and ears open, and see how they react as things develop.
Brendan’s goal for the next 12 months is to make his current feature film project called My Favorite Season, which is set in the world of Paris Fashion and then settle in what he hopes to be his new home in Auckland, New Zealand.
“Send your best wishes, prayers, whatever works for you to China as it deals with this novel coronavirus situation. They really need all the support they can get, and I’m rooting for them.”