WBJ, zhang epic upset B.O. expectations in Japan

A correction was made to this article on Aug. 25, 2003.

TOKYO — When Japanese media execs saw Zhang Yimou’s action epic “Hero” during an invitation-only premiere last December in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, they were neither awed by the presence of China’s political elite nor by the film or its stars. “Frankly speaking, I thought the movie could never become a big hit in Japan,” confesses one of them ruefully.

But one exec from Warner Bros. Pictures Japan (WBJ) saw things differently, and immediately notified the head office in Tokyo that “Hero” would be play well in Japan.

He was right. The actioner raked in a cool 634.64 million yen ($5.33 million) on its opening weekend Aug. 16 and 17 on 360 screens, the biggest start for a non-Japanese Asian film. “We are confident of reaching ($30 million),” says William Ireton, WBJ’s chairman. (Pic’s worldwide take so far is $65 million.)

But “Hero” wasn’t a sure thing. Movie Television, one of Japan’s strongest TV rights brokers with recent forays into theatrical distribution, had acquired Japanese rights for the pic from Hong Kong-based producer Bill Kong in a risky deal made well before the film was completed last autumn. (Although the actual figure remains undisclosed, Variety has learned the sum was roughly $4 million.)

Coming from disappointing joint distribution efforts “Windtalker” and the local production “Out,” MT decided a Chinese blockbuster starring Jet Li and featuring other topnotch talent with strong name value in Japan was a tempting option. Still, putting together a distribution consortium, as most Japanese companies do for major films, wasn’t easy.

Indeed, leading television networks hesitated, and the Japanese arm of one U.S. distributor vacillated for months over joining. It all came down to the gala screening in Beijing — after which WBJ plunked down 15% of the total investment for theatrical distribution, TV Asahi took television rights, and video powerhouse Rentrak Japan nabbed video-related ancillaries.Despite the fact the pic went on to break box office records for a local film in China, and played to heroic results in Hong Kong during December and January, it was considered no slam-dunk in other territories. Indeed, Miramax has postponed Stateside distribution of “Hero” several times.

Much of the credit for the movie’s success in Japan goes to WBJ’s sophisticated marketing campaign, which tied “Hero’s” signature layered color schemes to the fact that Japan’s grande dame of costume design Emi Wada conceived the sumptuous robes worn by the pic’s sword-wielding heroes. Marketers from WBJ also were careful to tie the “Hero” campaign to a Hollywood blockbuster. “We started the summer season with ‘The Matrix Reloaded’ from the West and ended it with ‘Hero’ from the East,” says Ireton, repeating WBJ’s strategy.

Meanwhile, MT is feeling rather, well, heroic. “We are working on similar combinations for future films, also from Asia,” says Kazuo Yoshikawa, Assistant Manager at MT’s Visual Media Department.

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