The success of “Hero” this past weekend, the biggest opening weekend ever for an Asian film, underscores Miramax’s long-term commitment to Asian cinema.
Many people have asked why we didn’t release “Hero” until just over a year and a half after its Chinese release. I’d like to set the record straight.
We have released films from several of the great masters of Chinese cinema – Chen Kaige’s “Farewell My Concubine,” Yuen Woo-Ping’s “Iron Monkey,” Wong Kar-Wai’s “Chunking Express” and Zhang Yimou’s “Ju Dou,” the first Chinese- language film ever nominated for the Oscar. We have released the most successful Japanese film in this country, “Shall We Dance” and we gave the first major U.S. release to a Japanese anime film. Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke.”
My own personal love affair with Asian cinema began well over a decade ago when I read Dave Kehr in the Chicago Tribune and Jay Carr in the Boston Globe describe Asian film series at repertory houses. I began tracking down these films and watching them.
But my real education in Asian cinema began when I met Quentin Tarantino, whose own love affair with these films is well known. Just as later, Marty Scorsese taught me about the great silent films and films from the ’30s and ’40s when we were making “Gangs of New York,” Quentin gave me a master’s knowledge of Asian cinema from Jackie Chan to Jet Li to Tsui Hark and King Hu. Every Saturday night, the prints would come to my screening room. Then to cap it all off, I met Sir Run Run Shaw and had a wonderful conversation with him about the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema.
When I was offered the opportunity to co-produce and co-finance “Hero,” and work with a director I have admired immensely since I saw “Ju Dou” in a cubicle in the basement of the Cannes Palais in 1990, I jumped at the chance.
I am very proud that our sizable investment in the film ensured that his magnificent vision would come to life. We envisioned a marketing campaign similar to that of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” with a full Oscar push. (And the great reviews the film has received show that our initial inclinations were correct.)
However, when the film was almost completed, we got some disappointing news. It was impossible for us to release the film at the end of 2002 (we weren’t even delivered the film until December). But the producers had decided to release the film for one week at the end of October 2002 to qualify if for the Oscars. This was now going to make the film ineligible in all categories in the 2003 Oscar race if “Hero” was nominated in 2002 for foreign-language film (which it was).
Our strategy of giving the film a full Oscar push was impossible. Then we hit another roadblock. We scheduled the film in August 2003, but the Jackie Chan starrer “The Medallion” moved onto our date. We knew it was imperative to distance the film from any other martial-arts films. We needed to be alone in the marketplace. At this point, Quentin Tarantino stepped in and offered to present the film and suggested we attach the trailer to “Kill Bill” Vols. 1 and 2, both in theatrical release and in home video release. This gave us a unique opportunity to hit the perfect audience for “Hero” several times and Quentin’s generous offer to present the film gave the film a commercial stamp of approval.
Some people have suggested that the availability of illegal imports of “Hero” on the Internet would have an effect on the box office. Clearly this was not the case and in fact our surveys showed that few audience members had seen the film on DVD. We have successfully cracked down on this practice, and have kept the sales of these DVDs to a few hundred enterprising Asian film fans. Piracy is a hugely important issue for our business and I realize now that concerns about piracy in China may have led the producers to release the film as soon as it was completed.
We have always tried to be innovators at Miramax. When we released a restored version of Yuen Woo-Ping’s kung-fu classic “Iron Monkey” in the fall of 2001 it was almost 10 years old and we knew that some DVDs had been available before we purchased the rights.
Our innovations have not always worked. One of our less successful ventures was the U.S. release of “Shaolin Soccer.” After I watched “Shaolin Soccer” with no subtitles and a woman translating in my ear, we bought worldwide rights excluding Hong Kong and shortly thereafter released the film all over Asia and then in most of Europe. We released a dubbed version in France and Italy and successfully reached a family audience, doing $3.4 million and $1.5 million, respectively. We spent considerable time and money creating a dubbed version for a domestic release. Once it was completed, we tested it in several markets and discovered that something wasn’t working for American family audiences, and so we released the film subtitled to appeal to the Asian film fan core here.
Inspired by the bravery of filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, who make films under sometimes adverse conditions, my commitment to innovation in Asian cinema remains strong. I have always tried to expand the boundaries of film and broaden the audience for non-Hollywood fare, not ghettoize it. This fall, Miramax will release “Infernal Affairs,” the first of a celebrated three-part series. My dream is to restore and release one of my favorite Asian films, King Hu’s “Touch of Zen.” I don’t care that it is widely available on DVD. I want to do this because it is a good thing to do to.
Every step in this brave new world of bringing Asian cinema to a wide commercial audience is an experiment. Sometimes there are missteps as with “Shaolin Soccer.” Sometimes there are giant steps as with “Hero.” Despite the challenges, we were committed to “Hero’s” brave filmmakers, Zhang Yimou and producer Bill Kong, who envisioned this huge artistic achievement. We had confidence in our plan and didn’t talk publicly about the hurdles we had had to overcome.
Credit should be given to Bob Iger at Disney who got behind the film with the promotional support of ABC and ESPN and most of all to Quentin Tarantino, who more than anyone, deserves credit for opening American audiences to the excitement and artistry of Asian cinema.
Harvey Weinstein is co-chairman of Miramax Films.