Kung Fu'd

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"Miramax is the one company that can create its own wave," says one source. "I am sure Harvey must believe once he figures out what to do with these territories, he can create his own campaign. Do you treat it like Crouching Tiger? Do you treat it like a Jet Li movie? How much do you focus on the action and CG effects? It's an interesting issue. He just has to come up with an explanation for some people why it was delayed. Most people don't care."

Why Miramax bought Hero is no mystery: The studio missed out on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and was furious to see all that yuan filling up the Fox coffers. So it spent a fortune on Hero, just as it was wrapping production two years ago. Hero opened in China the last weekend of December 2002 and promptly broke all box-office records: According to Variety, the film pocketed about $1.45 million on its first day of release--amazing in a country where pirscy has decimated the audience and films run for only a few days. Hero opened in 200 theaters and broke attendance records in each one, forcing theaters to begin showing the movie as early as 6 a.m. and as late as 2 a.m.

The movie has played damned near every country on the planet, where distributors other than Miramax have handled it. In France, Universal got the movie in theaters; in Spain, it was Columbia; in Japan, Warner Bros.; in the rest of Asia, Fox. And they've all made money with Hero, with aggressive and beautiful marketing campaigns tied into the movie's success in China and internationally.

In his new book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, Peter Biskind points out that Hero was the first movie Miramax bought since 1999, when it paid $10 million at Sundance for the mediocre comedy Happy, Texas and made but $2 million for its troubles. Biskind calls the amount paid for Hero "mind-boggling," insisting that Weinstein thought it would become the next Crouching Tiger. "It didn't," Biskind adds.

Biskind paints a portrait of Harvey Weinstein familiar to anyone who's even heard of him, much less had dealings with him--as a man who will seduce with one hand, then administer a bloody beating with the other. The Weinsteins claim to love films but buy them often to butcher them, claiming they're too long or complicated or occasionally just too foreign for American audiences; hence the nickname "Harvey Scissorhands," infamous among filmmakers who take Miramax money and come to wish they had resisted the temptation. On occasion, the Weinsteins will even buy movies just to keep them away from competitors.

When Harvey bought Hero, he said that the purchase was "another example of Miramax's commitment of bringing the best of Asian and martial-arts entertainment to Western audiences"--a comment that would come to gall fans of Asian and martial-arts films, who loathe Miramax for the way it buys Asian films and either dumps them right to video or dubs the life out of them by forcing Asians to "speak" English rather than forcing audiences to read subtitles. (Kasha says Miramax often can't buy the subtitle rights and is forced to dub a movie.)

Miramax has botched the release of its Asian acquisitions, including the long-promised-never-delivered comedy-fu Shaolin Soccer and Tsui Hark's computer-generated wonder The Legend of Zu, so much so that Web sites have sprung up denouncing the company. Chief among them are Kung Fu Cult Cinema (www.kfccinema.com) and the Web Alliance for the Respectful Treatment of Asian Cinema (alliance.hellninjacommando.net), the latter of which is best known by its subtitle, "Stop Disney from butchering Asian films!"

Both sites contain open letters to Miramax, blasting the studio for "deliberately spitting on the fans of the Asian movie genre" (from Kung Fu Cult Cinema) and mistreating films by either cutting them down or dubbing them into English or bypassing the theater for a Blockbuster shelf. Such was the unforgivable treatment given the dazzling sci-fi film Avalon, from revered Japanese director Mamoru Oshii, whose 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell was chief among the inspirations for The Matrix.

Kasha says Avalon went to home video because Miramax didn't think it would be prudent to spend a small fortune marketing a movie few would see outside the film-fest circuit. "It comes down to economics," he says. "Today, the line between watching a movie at home and in the theater is getting blurrier. Right now, home video revenue is twice what box office is. We hit $22 billion last year just on video, so what it comes down to is testing movies to see if they go in theaters and what makes sense to go to directly to video."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky