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Dentons Tax Lawyer From NY Plays Unlikely Role in 'Crazy Rich Asians' Success

(Center standing L-R) Janice Koh as Felicity, Amy Cheng as Jacqueline, Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor, and Selena Tan as Alix, in Warner Bros. Pictures’, SK Global Entertainment’ and Starlight Culture’ Entertainment's “Crazy Rich Asians,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Build close relationships with clients and there's no telling what opportunities will emerge.

That's how a veteran tax lawyer now at Dentons wound up with a hand in one of 2018's most groundbreaking film releases: "Crazy Rich Asians." The film, the first by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority Asian-American cast since "The Joy Luck Club," has grossed over $234 million since it opened in August.

Gary Gartner's name doesn't appear when the credits roll. But his legal work in assembling one of the production companies behind the film led to him taking a stake in Ivanhoe Productions, where he now serves as vice chairman—while also practicing law at Dentons and running a boutique business and tax advisory business, Alchemy Capital Planning.

The door to Hollywood opened up for New York-based Gartner when a longstanding client, the American-Canadian mining entrepreneur Robert Friedland, took a sidestep into the film world.

Gary Gartner, with Dentons.

"I was involved in most of his transactions over the years, and believe me, there have been many," said Gartner, who joined Dentons as a senior counsel in March. "He loves transactions."

Friedland, who operates Ivanhoe Mines from Singapore, was introduced to veteran American film producer John Penotti through his son. After his GreeneStreet Films found success with pictures including "In the Bedroom" and "A Prairie Home Companion" in the first part of the decade, Penotti saw the independent film world going through a turbulent reorientation and sought to refocus his attention on the burgeoning Asian market and local language films there.

"It just wasn't a fun business anymore," Penotti said. "I went to Asia, and I was lucky enough to meet Robert Friedland. He opened my eyes to what was happening in China and in greater Asia in general."

After a meeting in Hong Kong, Friedland, estimated by Forbes to be worth $1 billion, came away impressed by Penotti's energy and vision. Penotti valued Friedland's understanding of Asian culture and what audiences might want. His deep pockets couldn't have hurt.

They decided to fold GreeneStreet into a new venture, Ivanhoe Pictures, and Friedland dispatched Gartner to "make it happen." That involved working closely with Penotti to negotiate and structure the deal.

"I was trepidatiously beginning the conversation with Gary with the concern that it was going to get too lawyered—moved from the conceptual level to the legal level," Penotti said. "Many deals slow down or get killed, but I found the exact opposite dynamic: He was solving issues I couldn't get my head around. He understood Robert's deal-making instincts and what I was doing on the institutional side. He married the two worlds."

For Gartner, it was also a remarkable experience.

"I’d been involved with people in the film and entertainment business generally, and doing due diligence, there are always skeletons," he said. "Somebody will say, 'I don’t know, it doesn't look good to me, fill in the blanks.' I did not hear one negative word about John Penotti."

He came away so impressed he decided he wanted to have some skin in the game, asking Friedland for the opportunity to back the venture with his own money and free time.

Building Upward

Before "Crazy Rich Asians," Ivanhoe zeroed in on the local language market in Asia, forging relationships with a number of players in the region. The most notable of these was a partnership with now-shuttered Fox International Productions, which yielded the 2016 South Korean horror film "The Wailing."

All the while, Penotti was eyeing "Crazy Rich Asians," a 2013 novel by Singaporean-American author Kevin Kwan. That led to conversations with veteran film producer Sidney Kimmel and ultimately the decision to merge Ivanhoe with Sidney Kimmel Entertainment to form SK Global, while retaining each company's distinct content banner.

Gartner sat in the middle of that deal, handling the transaction along with attorneys for each of the companies.

Then it was on to "Crazy Rich Asians," forging a deal with Color Force principals Nina Jacobson, of "Hunger Games" fame, and Brad Simpson to bring the novel to life. Warner Brothers was then brought on board to serve as worldwide distributor and co-financing partner.

For Penotti, the process illustrated Garnter's enthusiasm for the creative side of the business.

"He went out and read the book overnight," he said. "That's shocking to me."

As the movie came together, the team bounced between extremes. Penotti was introduced to the material by a studio executive who told him the movie would never get done in Hollywood because it lacked a white American protagonist in the lead.

"I saw it as a positive that a studio wouldn't do it," he said. But at the same time, "we knew when acquiring it that it’s journey to the screen was already compromised. Once people pass on something, it's very hard to get their attention the next time."

All the while, they had to pour money into the film. But when Penotti went back to Gartner every few months to update him on the growing expenses, he said he only received encouragement and assurances that he was really on to something.

"If I can get an international tax expert to say that, I figure there's other people who might watch this movie," Penotti said.

Now, it's clear they had a gem on their lands. The $30 million production has brought in eight times that amount, and its sequel, based on Kwan's follow-up "China Rich Girlfriend," has been greenlit by Warner Brothers, with director Jon Chu again lined up to be behind the camera.

The team is also working hard to land the story of the soccer team trapped in the Thai cave that captivated the world this summer, also with Chu as director. In addition to that competitive process, they've got multipicture deals in Indonesia, Vietnam and Korea, and a film on its way in Mexico. There's also a joint venture with "Crazy Rich Asians" star Michelle Yeoh, which has already yielded a deal to turn the non-fiction exposé "Million Dollar Whale," about Malaysia’s 1MDB money-laundering scandal, into a feature film.

Just Another Transaction

Gartner is by no means the only lawyer in the film business, but the path from international tax law to Hollywood is lightly traveled.

One rough parallel comes from star litigator David Boies, who in 2012 teamed up with the son of Boies Schiller Flexner co-founder Jonathan Schiller, Zack Schiller, to create the Boies/Schiller Film Group. After a series of undistinguished releases, highlighted by 2016 box-office flop "Jane Got a Gun," starring Natalie Portman, Boies/Schiller's output has halted since the fall of 2017—the same time that Boies client Harvey Weinstein was dismissed from the Weinstein Co., distributor of "Jane Got a Gun," amid scores of sexual assault allegations. (A BSF spokesman did not respond to an inquiry about the current status of the venture.)

Gartner, who earlier in his career led the tax department and served on the executive committee at Kaye Scholer, says he was eager to step outside of the law firm box. That's something he's been encouraged to do in his short time at Dentons, which he joined through a strategic affiliation with his consulting firm.

While he said he's always loved film—naming the 1957 Charles Laughton vehicle "Witness for the Prosecution," the "Godfather" films, and "Groundhog Day" as favorites—he said the key to success in the business is to "deluster" it.

"It's just the same as a pet store buying another pet store," he said, "or a syndicated real-estate transaction with a waterfall of returns upon a sale, or exploitation, or renting of a property. I think that makes it more interesting and more successful, because people tend to be distracted by the star factor, and that's not something that I am."

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