Wong Kar-Wai’s “The Grandmaster,” now being officially presented by Martin Scorsese, is getting an ambitious release from the Weinstein Company, taking the chance that subtitles won’t be a barrier in reaching a wider audience. Moviegoers have not had much access to high-budget prestige martial arts films since Ang Lee’s spectacular 2000 success with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
With all the recent major hits from the Weinstein Company (while French, silent “The Artist” was less foreign), one area that that hasn’t quite replicated earlier Miramax success is subtitled films. In its heyday in the 1990s, the company transformed the normally limited market for foreign language pictures, starting with “Cinema Paradiso” in 1990 and then later “Il Postino,” which both grossed over $10 million (a rare achievement today, even with higher ticket prices), and prestige successes like “Farewell My Concubine” and Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” series. Miramax peaked with Roberto Begnini’s multiple Oscar winning “Life Is Beautiful’ (which totaled $57 million).
But these grosses pale next to Sony Pictures Classics’ achievement, “Crouching Tiger,” which took in a staggering $128 million in 2000-2001 (adjusted would be $185 million at today’s prices), which other than the anomaly of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” sold more tickets than any subtitled film in U.S. theater history. (Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” sold as many or more tickets than “Crouching,” but it played the majority of its runs with a dubbed English soundtrack in the early 1960s.)
“The Grandmaster” also could be competitive in an Oscar area where the Weinsteins under the Miramax label once excelled — the Foreign Language Film category. But if so, there could be a complication that could up this year with the change in voting rules.
Under the Miramax banner, Weinstein won the FL award six times between “Pelle the Conqueror” and “The Barbarian Invasions,” for a time rivaling Sony Pictures Classics. (SPC has won the award an incredible 13 times, including six of the last seven.) In recent years, though, the Weinsteins have been mainly absent. They had a strong contender last year with the huge international hit “Intouchables,” which was submitted by France and played well in the U.S. but failed to make the final five. Instead their Danish crowdpleaser “Kon-Tiki” was a 2012 nominee — although its U.S. release was in the English-language version shot at the same time.
With the Weinsteins making a major push, “The Grandmaster” could end up with a strong profile that could boost its chances. Cannes winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color” will not open in France in time to be eligible, although IFC will mount a best actress campaign. And “The Past” from director Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) has yet to be selected by either France, its country of production, or Iran, Farhadi’s country (though it remains a likely contender).
“The Grandmaster” could be well positioned thanks to the precedent of “Crouching Tiger,” its master auteur Wong Kar-Wai, the most critically acclaimed director from Hong Kong of his generation, and the initial positive critical response. Word is that Hong Kong — China is the other the co-producing country — will submit the original China cut of the film, so this could be well-positioned to land a nomination.
Weinstein is releasing the final edit of “The Grandmaster” in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto in limited theaters on Aug. 23, then rolling it out to 600+ theaters on Aug. 30, backed by a national TV campaign (spots have already shown up on broadcast prime time shows this week). All dates will be subtitled, a bold move by Weinstein, even more so since this is likely a record (other than Mel Gibson’s films) for the number of dates in only the second week of a run. (SPC’s last two winners both played at their widest in fewer than 350 theaters on their way to $6 million or better totals; “Crouching Tiger” at its widest was in over 2,000 theaters, though much later in its run.) And with any level of success it could be an elevated contender, if submitted, for Foreign Language Film, as well as other categories.
And that would lead to confusion, more so with revised rules this year. The version being released in the U.S. is one of three that has been shown — the original one opened in China and Hong Kong in January, the second played in Berlin last February, and the third and shortest cut with new elements but the same structure, whose editing was overseen by the director who has authorized this version, to be released in the U.S.
Academy rules though say that the version submitted for the Foreign Language committee, and then if nominated screened for members for the final voting, must be the one released in the submitting country. In the meantime, if Weinstein pursues nominations in other categories (apart from the top ones, several of the craft ones could be prime contenders), the U.S. release version is the one that is the correct one to view.
But there is a wrinkle this year — for the first time, the final voting for the award will be done by all members, with the Academy sending out DVDs of the foreign final five nominees. And they’d be sending out the original version, not the one released in the U.S. That would mean controversy in the first year of the revised rules, since this likely would cause confusion among members, who are instructed to vote only after seeing the applicable version. And members might be sitting at home with two versions, the U.S. release, with Weinstein sending this out as part of their 2013 slate, and then the one released in Asia by the Academy, with members being told they need to watch that one even if they have already viewed the other. Not exactly an easy thing to get them to do.
There is ironically a Weinstein-related case of this, but under much more limited circumstances. “Cinema Paradiso” won the award for 1989 in a longer version released in Italy than was in the U.S. However, that film opened in the U.S. only around the time of its nomination, and was in limited release in early weeks. Until this year, home viewing of nominees wasn’t allowed, so those who voted needed to see it at official screenings (although some might have gone to theaters in cities where it had opened already and voted on that basis).