Stephen Chow's 'The Mermaid' Makes Big U.S. Splash Despite Puzzling Lack Of Marketing

Movie marketing can be a thankless job. When a movie released by a major U.S. studio tanks at the box office, it’s the marketing executives who usually take the blame. But when a movie is a big hit, others rush to claim credit, and the marketers are lucky if they get recognition.

Though every once in a while, the marketers can’t even pretend that they deserve credit for a movie’s success.

Such is the case with Sony Pictures’ North American release of the Chinese hit The Mermaid. Sony’s marketing execs must be scratching their heads over the film, which this past weekend scored North America’s biggest opening for a Chinese-made movie in a decade, despite a conspicuous lack of promotion. With just over $1 million in box office on 35 screens, it enjoyed the biggest opening weekend for a Chinese movie since Jet Li’s Fearless scored a $10.6 million debut on 1,806 screens back in 2006.

Image credit: Union Pictures

If you haven’t heard of The Mermaid, or weren’t aware of its release in North American theaters this weekend, you’re not alone. Apparently almost no one at Sony Pictures knew either. As Simon Abrams wrote in his rave review on RogerEbert.com:

"Three of the four Sony representatives I spoke with didn’t even know that the company was releasing “The Mermaid.” The fourth rep told me that his company hadn’t thought to set up advanced screenings for the U.S. press, or even send out an email alerting them to the film’s impending release. I was told that… Sony didn’t expect it to interest many people, outside of Chinese or Chinese-American film fans."

It’s bizarre and rather sad that Sony Pictures didn’t give The Mermaid much thought. The studio and its subsidiary Sony Pictures Classics used to be proud champions of Chinese films, with credit for having released 3 of the top 5 highest grossing Chinese movies in North American box office history, including Stephen Chow’s last big domestic hit Kung Fu Hustle. That film kicked and punched its way to $17.1 million in ticket revenue in U.S. and Canadian theaters, a significant chunk of its $100 million worldwide gross back in 2005.

It’s notoriously difficult to persuade American audiences to watch foreign language films, but for nearly two decades Sony Pictures had a secret weapon in the form of Gareth Wigan, the much beloved English gentleman who served as Vice Chairman at Sony’s Columbia-Tristar Motion Picture Group. After a distinguished stint as an executive at Fox, where he shepherded classics such as Breaking Away, All That Jazz, Alien and Star Wars, Gareth moved to Sony where he championed the releases of many foreign films, including such Chinese language hits as Taiwan’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and China’s House of Flying Daggers and Kung Fu Hustle.

Gareth Wigan; image credit: Kammiller.com

I was fortunate to have Gareth as a friend, and we often spoke about Chinese movies. His eyes lighting up with pride when he recounted his stories of helping to bring them to life. I’ll never forget how excited he was when he told me that the Zhang Yimou film Hero had just grossed the unimaginably figure of $30 million in PRC theaters.

The Chinese film industry lost a great friend and supporter when Gareth Wigan stepped down from his post in mid 2000. When Gareth passed away in 2010, Crouching Tiger’s director Ang Lee called him ”a unique figure in the movie business,” a “great soul” who ”made quality films and who was also a pioneer of studio investment in foreign films.”

Here’s hoping that a new champion emerges at Sony to step into Gareth’s shoes and give The Mermaid the support it deserves. The movie is already a massive hit in China, where it is well on its way to grossing $500 million. With a little help it could also be a hit in the U.S. and around the world. I imagine this prospect would have brought a twinkle to Gareth’s eye and pleased him to no end.

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