Superstar Tom Bernard: Improbable Eastern hit proves it can fly in U.S.

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A subtitled movie called "Wo Hu Zang Long"-based on a five-part pre-World War II novel, directed by a Taiwanese auteur and starring actors who speak their lines in Mandarin Chinese-presented a challenging marketing puzzle.

To sell "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to U.S. audiences, Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Tom Bernard created a $15 million master plan that included the Internet, rappers, karate studios, a 13-year-old and a movie publicist with more connections than Con Ed.

"Crouching Tiger" is a dreamlike tale of a legendary warrior who tries to abandon his violent past. But he's forced to fight once more to recapture his sword, the Green Destiny, when it is mysteriously stolen after he entrusts it to a respected friend he loves from afar. What has left audiences gasping is the film's gravity-transcending martial arts scenes.

Now the highest-grossing foreign film ever, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., it has topped $100 million at the domestic box office, surpassing the previous champ, "Life Is Beautiful." But the strategy that made "Crouching Tiger" was as choreographed as its roof-level combat.

FIVE GROUPS TARGETED

Mr. Bernard explains: "We targeted five different groups-the art house crowd, the young, females, action lovers and the popcorn mainstream."

His first step was to do nothing about dubbing "Crouching Tiger." Remembering laughably out-of-synch 1970s martial arts flicks, Mr. Bernard knew "there was no way we could dub this."

The Internet gave him the confidence to leave it in the original Mandarin, with English subtitles.

"Millions of people," he realized, "are now used to typing and reading one or two sentences at a time that quickly disappear from their view while they're paying attention to the rest of a much larger screen."

Next was to whip up critics' interest and word of mouth.

Positioning "Crouching Tiger" first at the Cannes International Film Festival in May-then New York, Telluride, Reykjavik, Rotterdam, Toronto and other fests-the mix of Jane Austen lovemaking with Bruce Lee butt-kicking resulted in Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film prizes from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and Chicago Film Critics Association.

FESTIVALS USED

"The festivals were the absolute key to building up interest in the movie," notes New York-based film and events uber-publicist Peggy Siegal, who describes the film as "the kung-fu `Titanic.' "

Ms. Siegal had heard about "Crouching Tiger" and "I literally begged Tom Bernard to let me work on it."

But Mr. Bernard didn't want Ms. Siegal to rely on her traditional contacts, a surprising decision considering the publicist's 20,000-strong Rolodex once made Entertainment Weekly's 50 Greatest Lists of All Time.

"I wanted her to reach out to alternative buzz-makers she didn't know," Mr. Bernard says.

Ms. Siegal staged a series of eight screenings at a cost of about $40,000 over October and November that brought in a mixed crowd-from CNBC "Squawk Box" regular Joe Kernan to women's basketball star Rebecca Lobo to fashion Brahmin Elsa Klensch and rappers Wu-Tang Clan.

Sony then put a hard-core action trailer in the theatrical release of "Urban Legends: Final Cut" to attract the youth market and one in the video of "The Patriot" to capture the family. Another softer one, stressing the film's reviews and lyrical nature, also made the rounds. Tiger Schulmann Karate, a chain of 35 schools in Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, hosted several "Crouching Tiger" screenings along with martial arts exhibitions in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia.

Playing up the prominent role of women in the movie, several female karate teachers and students gave demonstrations at some of the screenings.

"By that time-November-there was a constant buzz about the movie being the Oscar contender," says Craig Murray, head of Craig Murray Productions, a Burbank, Calif., agency that worked on "Vertical Limit," "I Know What You Did Last Summer" and "A Bug's Life." "And it hadn't even opened up yet in America."

"Crouching Tiger" had now become the talk of everybody from the middle-aged to the hip-hop community, but especially on the Internet.

"I saw what the Net did for `The Blair Witch Project,' " says Mr. Bernard. His opportunity to create a site came last summer when he was at a barbecue and the movie was just starting in Asia. A friend showed Mr. Bernard her 13-year-old son's Web site (cablejump. com). Impressed, Mr. Bernard paid the teen-ager $100 to develop a teaser campaign there. Another official site (crouchingtiger.com) also went online in the summer, generating more than 500,000 hits so far.

WEB SITE LINKS

Mr. Bernard distributed an action-heavy trailer to 400 Web sites, including Austin, Texas-headquartered Ain't-It-Cool-News, a movie-buff site that can act as an online early-warning system for cinematic hits and misses.

Mr. "Bernard `got' the Web," recalls AICN founder and buzz-maker Harry Knowles, who also hosted a screening for the movie in Austin. "Cable Jump and the official site were regularly updated to keep people coming back for more."

When "Crouching Tiger" finally opened to the general public in New York on Dec. 15, it was already a hit before selling a single ticket in the U.S.

In its first weekend, the film pulled in more than $600,000 on just 16 screens. "Over Christmas," Mr. Bernard adds, "it was the No. 1 request on the Moviefone listing service."

Even then, instead of making huge TV ad buys, Mr. Bernard chose regional spot TV placements likely to draw large audiences, such as a UCLA-Stanford basketball game and a New York Giants National Football League playoff contest. S. Callan Co, Hollywood, Calif., handled the media buy.

"We were still unfolding it slowly and synchronizing it with the critical acclaim," he says.

By Feb. 2, almost two weeks after "Crouching Tiger" had won three Golden Globe awards (including Best Foreign Language Film), the film was on 1,000 screens. By Feb. 16, three days after it received 10 Oscar nominations, it was on more than 1,600 screens and had raked in more than $70 million.

Asked if anything had gone awry with the movie's step-by-step marketing, Mr. Bernard says no.

"Everything," he says, "went according to the plan."

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