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Asian Films Caught Between U.S. Distribs and DVD-Seeking Fans

Asian Films Caught Between U.S. Distribs and DVD-Seeking Fans

As Asian film fans know, Wong Kar Wai‘s sexy, sci-fi remembrance “2046” opened a couple of weeks ago in U.S. theaters, Park Chan-wook‘s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” the first in his sick and twisted revenge trilogy, debuts in Los Angeles and New York theaters this Friday, and coming out in October, Lions Gate Films will distribute “Three . . . Extremes,” an omnibus horror trilogy from Asian auteurs Park Chan-Wook, Fruit Chan, and Takashi Miike. But as most Asian film fans also know, all three of these movies have been widely available on DVD well before their U.S. theatrical releases.

In the Asian neighborhoods of major cities like New York or Los Angeles, and on Internet sites that cater to Asian film aficionados, or even Ebay, there is a bustling business for overseas DVDs that are easily operated on multi-region DVD players. Some are pirated copies, videotaped off of movie screens or poor-quality illegal bootlegs; others are pristine parallel imports that are perfectly legal — defined by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) as “goods authorized for manufacture or distribution in the exporting country but imported without express authority of the copyright or trademark owner.”

Call the MPAA anti-piracy hotline (1-800-NO-COPYS) and you’ll find that if the DVD you can’t wait to purchase on such websites as DVDAsian.com and yesasia.com is not a burned copy, then it’s perfectly legal. “As long as it’s the actual video,” a friendly anti- piracy phone agent told me, “then it’s fine.”

Either way, U.S. distributors are concerned about the current widespread availability of titles, which they says cuts into their ability to release movies in U.S. theaters and on DVD. “It’s a big pain in our asses,” says Bob Myerson, exec VP at Tartan Films USA, which holds the rights to Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.” “There’s no question about it.”

“It’s hard to have a tangible gauge about how much it’s taking away from box office,” continues Myerson, who says the company is involved in several pending lawsuits. “It happens so frequently. We have issued cease-and-desist letters; we are on the frontlines of the piracy issue. Whenever we find someone selling our DVDs on the Internet, whenever we walk into a video store, we have people working on it the whole time.”

“I think piracy hurt us immeasurably on ‘Kung Fu Hustle‘ and ‘House of Flying Daggers‘,” agrees Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which also released “2046.” “But exactly to what extent it hurts, I don’t know.”

Asian film fans and critics, however, say the MPAA is overstating the problem and U.S. distributors are not seeing the wider picture. “American distributors have to get with it. Right now, we’re way behind in Asian product,” says Grady Hendrix, the head of Subway Cinema and the New York Asian Film Festival. “I’m not going to wait for an American distributor to wait for which films they’re going to release and a year later, do a video release. I want to stay ahead of the curve. So I usually pick up copies in Chinatown and I don’t know if they’re legal or not, but frankly, I could care less.”

And if it weren’t for bootlegs and parallel imports, argues Hendrix, “Nobody would know who Jet Li or Jackie Chan is. Asian imports are fan-driven. The argument the MPAA makes is that piracy is bad, but you wonder what the U.S. market would look like without it? Would Jackie Chan still be a star?”

Reid Rosefelt, the former indie PR maven who worked on the marketing campaign for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” notes the audience for even an art-house director like Kim Ki-duk (“Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, and Spring“) was already building before U.S. companies were attached, due to the availability of DVDs. “Ki-duk’s films were thought to be very violent and mindlessly exploitative at the beginning and critics found his brand of surrealism arty and self-indulgent,” he says. “But he was a hero to the Internet kids long before the festival prizes and Sony Classics releases.”

Films like Kim Ki-duk’s “Bad Guy” and Park Chan-wook’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” Rosefelt argues, would never have seen the light of day in the U.S., other than parallel and illegally imported DVDs, if it weren’t for successes that came much later.

Furthermore, Hendrix says the global marketplace makes the piracy issue obsolete. “There’s no such thing as these iron clad borders that everyone speaks about,” he says. Asian distributors, he says, can increase the international value of their films by holding them back from the market longer, and U.S. distributors should pay closer attention to the release dates in foreign markets.

Both Sony Classics and Tartan executives agree that the company’s Asian acquisitions need to hit the U.S. marketplace much sooner than they have in the past. “In order to combat piracy, the American release date will be a lot closer to the release date in the original territory,” says Michael Barker.

Tartan Film’s Myerson echoes the concern. “Since we just started the company only a year ago, we couldn’t go out any sooner with these films,” he says. “But our goal, in the future, will be to go out as soon as possible.” Park Chan-wook’s final installment of his revenge trilogy, “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” premiering at the upcoming Venice Film Festival, says Myerson, will be released next year.

U.S. companies will also continue to call for tighter restrictions on imports, tougher enforcement on pirates here and abroad and new technologies to create copy-proof DVDs (“How the hell can they not come up with something?” wonders Sony Classics’ Tom Bernard. “It’s like the electric car. Does it exist? Probably.”) But such battles may be never won, as new pirating technologies proliferate and more companies eventually adapt to a changing global and cyber-marketplace.

And yet, U.S. companies can seek comfort in one area that shouldn’t change — at least for a while: the joy of watching Zhang Ziyi or Tony Leung sashay on the silver screen. As Barker says, “‘2046’ is best appreciated in the movie theater.”

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