Japanese savvy turns ‘Cure’ into hit

Despite disappointing domestic B.O. performance and taboo subject matter, Island Pictures’ “The Cure” has grossed more than $4.5 million in its first three weeks in Japanese release. Currently at the No. 7 spot on the Japanese B.O. charts, the film is topped only by five of the biggest U.S. summer blockbusters and one Japanese language film.

In the U.S., the Universal distributed pic grossed only $2.5 million in its entire theatrical run in April.

Helmed by former “thirty-something” co-star Peter Horton, “The Cure” tells of an AIDS-stricken 12-year-old (Joseph Mazzello) who, together with a friend (Brad Renfro) sets out to find a cure for his disease. Annabella Sciorra plays the dying child’s mother.

Japanese distribution is handled by Shochiku-Fuji in conjunction with indie Kuzui Enterprises, which made an all-media deal for the pic with Island.

Kuzui is earning a reputation as the “Japanese Miramax” for successfully distributing such director-driven specialty fare as “Wild at Heart,” “Barton Fink” and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy.

“Our reputation is for being successful at marketing sticky niche films with a lot of potential but which no one else knows how to market,” says executive vice president Fran Kuzui.

Kuzui admits that “The Cure’s” subject matter was potentially a major liability. “In a country where cancer is considered a dirty disease,” she says, “discussion of AIDS is almost verboten.”

Fortunately for the distributors, however, a group of Japan’s most popular rock bands had recently joined together to raise awareness and money for pediatric AIDS charities. Kuzui president Kaz Kuzui contacted the organization, Act Against AIDS (AAA), and screened the film for the bands individually.

“The musicians all loved the film and thought it was a really good way to broach the subject (of AIDS),” says Fran Kuzui. So good, in fact, that they agreed to perform at the film’s premiere, where 3% of ticket sales benefited children’s AIDS charities.

In its opening week, the film grossed $1.73 million in 33 theaters for a seven-day per-screen average of $52,400. By comparison, “Pocahontas” opened in July with $2.2 million in 77 theaters – or $28,500 per screen.

Stamp of approval

When the film came to the attention of an influential Buddhist sect, the distributors were invited to show the film at Kiyomizu, a revered Buddhist temple in Kyoto. The head priest even introduced the film “to acknowledge that Buddhists understand AIDS is a problem,” says Fran Kuzui. “That put the film over the top.”

Still, Fran Kuzui says, the company did not position the film as an AIDS movie. “We focused on it being the story of friendship between two friends, one of whom is dying of AIDS.”

To that end the company changed the film’s title to “My Friend Forever,” and emphasized its tear-jerker elements by giving away handkerchiefs bearing the film’s title. “After the Kobe earthquake and the subway gassings,” says Fran Kuzui, “I thought Japanese audiences would like to have a good cry.”

Additional marketing efforts have included bringing 12-year-old star Brad Renfro (“The Client”) to Japan, and developing a tie-in with the Converse shoe company – a key plot point in the film shows Renfro’s character giving the Mazzello character his sneaker.

In the end though, Fran Kuzui admits good fortune has played a big part in the film’s success. “I think it was Quentin Tarantino who said, ‘talent is putting yourself in the way of luck.'”

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