Right now, every executive in Hollywood faces the same simple and yet maddeningly complex quandary: There is a whole lot of money currently surging into China’s entertainment economy, and American executives are puzzled over how to best get at it. Diverting Chinese funds across the Pacific is no easy feat, and while the major studios have all made moves to establish a Chinese presence, either through partnerships with extant Chinese studios or Chinese branches of their own enterprises, the fact remains that they’re not optimizing their profit margins. (That’s business-talk for “making as much money as they could be.”) Marvel has smartly carved themselves a niche in overseas markets by aggressively pushing their properties with cross-cultural appeal, the most recent example being last summer’s Paul Rudd-played Ant-Man, the design of which bears a striking similarity to jet-packed heroes of vintage East Asian sci-fi. Still, Tinseltown’s top brass has their best people working round-the-clock to figure out how to siphon that sweet, sweet yuan out of Macau and onto our fair shores.
That was Sony’s intention when they acquired the U.S. distribution rights to The Mermaid, the latest film from Kung Fu Hustle director Stephen Chow and, not incidentally, the most successful Chinese film in history. The action-fantasy-romance has already raked in a mind-boggling $419 million in its native China, besting the likes of Furious 7 and Monster Hunt, the two closest competitors at $390 million and $381 million, respectively. With a swiftness fairly described only as Star Wars-esque, the film broke all manner of box-office records, setting new bars for biggest opening day, biggest opening weekend, and biggest single-day take. The Mermaid‘s performance stateside was just as astonishing, with a million-dollar gross across a paltry 35 theaters and a robust per-screen average of more than $28,000 — the highest of the weekend. By anyone’s measure, Chow’s picture has put up phenomenal numbers.
Which poses the question as to why The Mermaid‘s U.S. distributor has made just about no effort at all to support this film. As noted above, this major import has only screened in a measly 35 screens, effectively barring huge swaths of potential viewers from even gaining access to the film in the first place. But in that relatively tiny number of theaters, this film was released almost in secret. Film critic Simon Abrams claims that he’s consulted with multiple representatives from Sony who admitted to not even being aware that the studio was distributing the film. There’s been zero advertising and marketing to spread awareness of this release, no advance screenings for press. It’s almost as if Sony, having already spent money to acquire the distribution rights to The Mermaid, now has no interest whatsoever in bringing it to the public.