Monday, November 01, 2010

Aftershock, and mainstream-foreign distribution

A few weeks ago, I went to a screening of Endhiran that was packed even though it was not even the movie's opening weekend and wondered what the heck Indian films have that other foreign and independent films don't. The answer, I figure, is a combination of day-and-date releases and local marketing. It probably also doesn't hurt that they have been a staple of whatever theater they were running in at any given point over the past few years: If you've wanted to see an Indian movie in the Greater Boston area, there's been one playing.

Still, I figured Aftershock might have a chance to do pretty well. The Boston Common theater where it is playing is very close to Chinatown. The movie was a big hit in China this summer, had the look of an epic that needs to be seen on the big screen, and as it had only played there a few months ago, I figured it might not have been completely undercut by large chunks of its audience already having the movie on DVD. Heck, I saw larger-than-expected crowds at Formosa Betrayed and 71: Into the Fire, and figured it had a pretty good shot of doing well. I planned to write something about the irony that the big chain theater could open this movie up while the independent cinema a block away apparently can't.

Instead, I sat down to the 1:45pm show with only four other people, I think only one or two looking Asian. Part, I suspect, is that I was wrong about those DVDs: They apparently have some amazingly short release dates in China; though IMDB shows the movie as having been released on 22 July 2010 in both the PRC and Hong Kong, YesAsia shows 17 September 2010 releases for the DVD and Blu-ray in Hong Kong, 30 September for the DVD in China, and 15 October release for the Blu-ray in China (and the Hong Kong VCD, yes, really, VCD). So, even with an unusually aggressive American release, Aftershock was still competing with import DVDs, and Chinese DVDs are as cheap as they have to be to compete with ubiquitous piracy. (Apparently Blu-ray piracy is still lagging, as those retail for about twice as much as DVDs in China, as opposed to the 15-30% markup in the U.S.)

But I also have to wonder how well-supported the release was. Was there signage in Chinatown businesses, or ad buys on websites frequented by the target audience? I've got no idea. What I do wonder is if bigger audiences would result if AMC (or the Stuart Street Playhouse) made Chinese films a regular thing. Even if you can't get day-and-date releases, just try having something there for a couple months during a down period (September/October or February/March, maybe) or have it be a regular weekday series.

Fresh movies would likely help, but I suspect it would be hard for any local exhibitor (except maybe Austin's Tim League) to convince Asian studios to do so. After all, intuitively, the collapse of Asian films in the U.S. home video market over the past five or ten years does not seem to argue for a more aggressive, expensive courting of that market, no matter how successful Indian films have been using the same model. But I suspect Bollywood is ahead of the curve, albeit accidentally - they didn't so much anticipate a world where the internet allows fans around the world to follow foreign movie industries as closely as the local one, or where region-free DVD players allowed hardcore fans to bypass licensing agreements that don't get struck for every title (and where the ones they are struck for take forever to come out and may show up in edited form); they just saw an audience not being served and went after it in the most straightforward way possible.

Now, I suspect that it's time for everyone else to see that this is the best model - rather than waiting to strike deals with Magnolia and IFC after the buzz on your property has peaked, market directly to American fans, including day-and-date releases in theaters in or near large Chinese-American communities (this applies equally-well to Korea, Japan, heck, even France). Delays give audiences time to focus on something else, and while profits may down on the big movies, I suspect that the mid-range films will make up for it.

Also, I suspect that if foreign studios offer favorable terms to the AMCs and Landmarks of the world, there's a good chance that they'll be able to get their movies in front of audiences that might not otherwise see them. Right now, the chance of the average guy who likes movies finding these works is low - they don't show up in multiplexes, Best Buy is cutting shelving, video rental stores are imploding, Redbox doesn't stock niche, and Amazon and Netflix isn't likely to show you these movies unless you're already browsing something similar. Ironically, theatrical might be the easiest for foreign studios looking to increase their presence in the U.S. to crack, especially if they're smart about how they go about it. It will take a serious and sustained effort, though - getting the base there will require doing more than putting one movie out a month after the DVD is available.

It's also worth remembering that this will take time, because there are a few different audiences that would hopefully come in order. First, the immigrants and the hardcore fans (the guys a few notches above me) - the people who follow the Chinese film industries as closely as Hollywood if not closer. These people can potentially form a solid, predictable base if courted well (for Bollywood films, they appear to be all you need). After that, you get the adventurous movie fans - the guys who come to the multiplex and maybe will drop nine bucks on the film with a cool name and cool poster that starts in ten minutes. Having the occasional 3-D movie wouldn't hurt (and as a bonus, that's cheaper than shipping film). Then, maybe, that group will start recommending the foreign-but-mainstream movie to his or her friends, especially after he or she has seen a few that impress.

This would take time, though, and probably an unusual run of good movies. Would any theater be willing to take this chance? It seems like it could be high-risk, except for theaters with 20+ screens that are willing to take a chance on what they show on the smaller ones and places like Fresh Pond that are likely running close to the edge anyway. But with foreign film distribution falling apart in the US, it's possible that being bold is better than trying to shore up the current system.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 October 2010 at AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run)

It's not hard to get the wrong impression of Aftershock; the poster in the theater lobby notes that it was released in IMAX (interestingly, though showing the North American release date, the text on that one-sheet is almost entirely Chinese), and while director Feng Xiaogang has directed a wide range of films in all genres, it has been his grand spectacles such as Assembly and The Banquet (aka Legend of the Black Scorpion) that have gotten the most attention overseas. So it may be a bit surprising when, with roughly a half hour down and nearly two to go, the film shifts gears to become a family melodrama, and stays one to the end. Fortunately, it's a pretty good one as such things go.

The film starts in Tangshan on 26 July 1976, where we meet Fang Qiang (Zhang Guoqiang) and his wife Yuan Li (Fan Xu), as well as their twin children, Fang Da and Fang Deng. Sadly, early the next morning the date and place of perhaps the most devastating earthquakes of the twentieth century: Roughly a quarter of the of this city's million inhabitants died when it struck as they slept. As the city crumbles around her, she is faced with an impossible choice - a piece of rubble rests on both her children; lift it from Da and Deng will be crushed, lift it from Deng and Da dies. Ultimately, she says "save my son". Fortunately, the men working to dig the children out are neither engineers nor doctors, and Deng lives. The silent child is adopted by two of the soldiers (Chen Daoming and Chen Jin). We next catch up with them about ten years later, when Fang Da (Chen Li), who lost an arm in the quake, is chafing at his mother's obsessive attention, while sister Wang Deng (Zhang Jingchu) is making plans to apply to medical school, though her nightmares indicate that she remembers much more about the night of the quake than she's let on.

All the characters are deeply affected by that night, and it's something we will watch them deal with practically to the present day; the English-language title turns out to be quite descriptive. This is a film not about a disaster or even just its immediate aftermath, but how a single event can affect a person profoundly. The script by Su Xiaowei spans thirty-two years and does a remarkable job of keeping the focus on its main characters even though there are ample opportunities to go off on tangents or have the main cast grow to an unwieldy size; supporting characters are rotated in and out naturally. There are some odd pacing issues, though, almost as though Feng and Su felt they had plenty of time in the beginning but pressure to wrap it up toward the end: There's a lengthy sequence with Qiang's mother and sister, for instance, that ultimately doesn't change anything, although this may be a sequence the film's main audience expects to see. At the other end of the movie, certain major emotional moments happen just off-screen. They are not bad choices; the restraint actually works very well. It's odd, though, in that there are times that restraint is not the word one would use to describe Feng's work here.

Full review at EFC.

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