Co. finds success with Asian mind-bending genre pics

Diehard cinephiles were well aware of Tartan Films prior to its move into the U.S. market last year. Known as a U.K. version of Criterion Collection, Tartan carved out a niche for itself by distributing edgy art films, auteur pics and something it calls “Asia Extreme.”

Epitomized by films such as “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and “A Tale of Two Sisters,” Asia Extreme has become a broad term for mind-bending genre pics from Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, and has attracted a devoted following of (mostly male) auds.

“Every kid who has a PlayStation probably has a copy of ‘Oldboy’ or ‘Battle Royale,’ ” explains Tartan topper Hamish McAlpine.

When McAlpine eyed U.S. cinemas and DVD stores, he saw an opportunity to expand the Asia Extreme brand. “It just struck me that there was a whole niche that was being ignored by (distributors) in America,” he says. Because of Tartan’s success in Blighty, “it was a very, very logical extension of our activities.”

However, initial exhibitor reaction was less than effusive. “There’s been this theory that arthouse cinema is purely for liberal bourgeois,” McAlpine says. But he knew auds wouldn’t have the same prejudices, and was proved correct by the B.O. success of “Oldboy.”

The U.S. release strategy is aided in no small part by the striking one-sheets and DVD box art that Tartan became known for in the U.K. — so well known, in fact, that distribs in other territories often latch on to Tartan-designed marketing materials.

Accessibility had been a problem for Asia Extreme fans, many of whom don’t have an arthouse cinema nearby and if they do, the cinema would screen, in McAlpine’s words, “Italian soppy, weepy, romantic comedies rather than the more ballsy cinema that’s out there.”

That’s why McAlpine sees the disc as the great equalizer. “DVD is the motor that drives our industry, whether you’re in niche (or mainstream),” he says. Tartan releases some titles like “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” theatrically first, while others such as “Phone” and Kim Ki-Duk’s “Samaritan Girl” go straight to shelves Stateside.

“I was initially dismayed at how long it took me to persuade video retailers that this was a hot product,” says McAlpine, noting that it took retailers like Wal-Mart six months to catch on that Asia Extreme “isn’t just some weird niche market.”

The title that changed everything was “A Tale of Two Sisters,” a pic that didn’t make a lot of noise in its theatrical bow last winter, but that has really come into its own on DVD. Now, retailers are “grabbing (the films) with both hands,” he says. “If the first half of the year was a disaster, the second half has proven to be paradise beyond my wildest dreams.

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