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After the kung fu boom of the ’70s and the relative quiet of the ’80s, there was another sea change in American audiences’ acceptance of Asian cinema. In the early ’90s, college students packed theaters for midnight screenings of John Woo and Jackie Chan’s kinetic action films. Later in that decade, Hollywood brought Woo and Chan, along with a host of other Hong Kong actors and directors, over themselves to make films here. With the exception of Woo’s Face/Off, few of these efforts resulted in memorable work. While Chan became a star in America—even his Hong Kong-made, Vancouver-shot Rumble In The Bronx topped our box-office chart—he fit awkwardly into American-made films. However, Americans’ love affair with Asian films continued. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero were huge hits.
In 2011, the picture looks much different. One of Chan’s best recent films, Little Big Soldier, has been waiting almost two years to find American release. (It will finally come out this fall.) This year’s New York Asian Film Festival (July 1-14) offers a homecoming of sorts for fans of ’80s and ’90s Hong Kong cinema, featuring new films by Woo and Tsui Hark (included as part of a retrospective on the filmmaker). From the arthouse end of the spectrum, directors like Jia Zhang Ke and Apichatpong Weerasethakul have played in festival after festival and won many awards, but their films rarely get more than a minimal run in America. The Chinese documentary scene, many examples of which upstart dGenerate Films distributes here, has received even less exposure.
I recently talked with dGenerate Films’ vice president Kevin Lee and New York Asian Film Festival programmer Grady Hendrix to get a sense of what it’s like to market, release and exhibit a cinema that’s now fallen a bit out of fashion.
The elephant in the room for anyone exhibiting Asian films in America is the possibility of another Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-size hit. While this is less of an issue for dGenerate Films, which distributes most of its DVDs to museums and university libraries, Lee is hopeful about this possibility. For him, “It comes in cycles. The kung fu cycle played out. The way I see it now, the evolution of Chinese cinema is oriented towards an emerging Chinese domestic audience, which is becoming a bigger market. The subtext of a film like City Of Life And Death is taking a traumatic historical event in Chinese history and making it compelling to a worldwide audience.”
On the other hand, Hendrix thinks the window of opportunity that made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero into such big hits is forever gone. He suggests that a more sustainable model is one based on limited box office. He points to IP Man 1 and 2 as examples. As he relates, “The first movie made 30 or 40 thousand [dollars] theatrical. The second made about 200 thousand. Those are loss leaders for really strong DVD sales. People whose business models require a subtitled, limited release film to gross over a million dollars are deluded.”
While a film like Oxhide II, a 133-minute examination of a family making, cooking and eating dumplings, is always going to have a very limited audience, the lively documentary Disorder, a “city symphony” of urban chaos in mainland China, could become an arthouse hit. The reception to Disorder has gone beyond what people expected, with a potential still to be discovered.
There’s often an assumption that a film like Disorder, no matter how good it is, could never appeal to the archetypal Asian film fan in America. He—and it’s almost always a “he”—is usually envisioned as a geeky devotee of hot girls and extreme violence, a la Quentin Tarantino. Hendrix scoffs at the idea that there’s a single audience for an entire continent’s cinema. His experience has taught him that “the demographic is so split that we get totally different audiences. Gantz is getting huge responses from the anime community, but they don’t care about some of our other films. The Tsui Hark retrospective is getting old school Hong Kong audience and Film Comment readers, simply because he’s such a major director.”
While the New York Asian Film Festival has no real streaming video presence, dGenerate Films has partnered with a number of companies, including Fandor, Mubi, the Tribeca-affiliated Reframe, Indieflix, and Frameline, to make its films available as one-time rentals. The New York Asian Film Festival began at Anthology Film Archives, moved to the IFC Center, and has been presented at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater for the past two years. However, such partnerships come with certain tradeoffs. Hendrix frankly admits, “We make a lot less money because our deal with Lincoln Center is different from the deal we had with the IFC Center; we give them a very high split of the box office. Ticket-wise, we’re doing better... we get a lot more guests than we could get elsewhere. The other thing is that we get a lot more infrastructural support. At Lincoln Center, they have a whole staff that does nothing but put on film festivals.”
One would expect fans of Asian cinema to be early adopters of social media, clued into the latest technologies. However, both Lee and Hendrix admitted that their promotional tools are relatively simple. For dGenerate Films, its blog is the most crucial portion of its online presence. As Lee describes it, “We post two to five items per week, depending what we come across. If people read a news item that’s out there, they can become aware that our films are relevant to it.”
The New York Asian Film Festival’s means for keeping in touch with its base is a mailing list, which has been in existence for 15 years. Hendrix says, “Buzz on Facebook and Twitter doesn’t necessarily translate to ticket sales. We sell out a screening by a few different techniques: we put it in the newsletter; we’ll do giveaways on various sites; we’ll push it to the press; we’ll give away free beer and have the filmmaker there. Out of all those things, the last two sell the most tickets.”
While it may be foolish to expect that all 48 films in this year’s New York Asian Film Festival would appeal to all potential viewers, Hendrix admits that he continues to be taken aback at what a struggle it is to sell tickets. Having worked on the festival for ten years, his perspective seems more jaded than Lee’s. For Lee, dGenerate Films is a potential portal for the production of Chinese documentaries and independent films, not just for distribution in America. He says, “Partnering with the Tribeca Film Institute enabled us to get started.” On the other hand, Hendrix exclaims, “I’d rather shoot myself than start a distribution company.” Yet for all their differences, both dGenerate Films and the New York Asian Film Festival are doing vital work, exposing some of the most exciting cinema being made today to an American audience.
Learn more about dGenerate Films.
Check out the New York Asian Film Festival, which kicks off Friday, July 1, and runs through Thursday, July 14.