What Fuels Ang Lee's 'Lust' in America?

Mobilizing Communities of Asian-Americans Key to Box-Office Success

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The film features unabashedly acrobatic sex, full-frontal nudity and an NC-17 rating, prompting the nation's third-largest theater chain, Cinemark, to refuse to screen it. It runs long: two hours and 38 minutes. And it's entirely in Chinese.
Instead of couch surfing on late-night talk shows, Ange Lee promoted 'Lust, Caution' on Chinese radio.
Instead of couch surfing on late-night talk shows, Ange Lee promoted 'Lust, Caution' on Chinese radio.

Yet, Oscar-winning director Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" is doing unexpectedly brisk business, succeeding despite (or because of) those three strikes against it -- propelled by an unlikely combination of grass-roots marketing, Asian star power and old-fashioned controversy.

Take Fred Fu, for example. On "Lust, Caution's" opening night in New York on Sept. 28th, the Queens resident and Ang Lee fan approached the box-office clerk at Manhattan's Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

How many tickets did the gentleman want to buy?

Beating out 'Pirates'
All of them. Mr. Fu filled the 7:15 p.m. showing with dozens of his friends from Flushing, Queens, desperate to finally see the film that had already become a hit overseas, where it's made $9.8 million in its first three weeks. In Hong Kong, its gross is approaching $4 million for the same time frame. In both markets, even though they're rife with piracy, the film is exceeding the theatrical grosses of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Harry Potter" franchises.

Such enthusiasm overseas has made the film a far easier sell to Chinese-Americans, 85% of whom are still first-generation immigrants, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"The majority of the market is preferenced to the native tongue, which is how they maintain the culture," said Greg Sullivan, president of Asian Media and Marketing Services, the bicoastal Woodland Hills, Calif., and New York firm that developed the Asian-American marketing plan for distributor Focus Features.

The New York premiere of "Lust, Caution" hauled away some $63,000 from a single engagement that was 90% Chinese, making it the third-biggest opening in the past 25 years. But was it simply pent-up demand overwhelming a single theater?

Going to the audience
"What we're finding out by the end of that first week was that that same Sino event that was occurring in China and Taiwan was occurring here," said Jack Foley, president of distribution at Focus, which quickly added 17 other Asian-rich American cities to the mix in the movie's second week. "We were getting Caucasian art filmgoers as well, but clearly the Chinese community was on fire to see this movie," Mr. Foley said. "And the good news is they're very targetable; there are theaters where you can specifically speak to them."

Well, sort of.

Reaching Asian-Americans such as Mr. Fu is at once disarmingly simple and excruciatingly difficult. According to Mr. Sullivan, some 54.1% of Chinese living in America reside in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. The remainder, like other Asians, are scattered throughout the suburbs of all sorts of smaller, secondary markets, such as Washington and Seattle, making the marketing of "Lust, Caution" more of a challenge. Focus has sought to reach them via two prongs: pinpoint distribution and target marketing.

The former means showing the film mostly in places such as the heavily Asian San Gabriel Valley and Alhambra in Los Angeles, Vietnamese-heavy areas in New Orleans, and Texas flyover cities such as Corpus Christi and El Paso, making sure Sino-American audiences support the picture in much the same way Greek Americans turned out to back "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and evangelical Christians mobilized for "The Passion of the Christ."

Courting Chinese-Americans
Said Mr. Sullivan: "With other movies, that would just be a thoughtless part of the process. With this film, this is an acutely important part of the process that you have to execute."

According to a study by Multimedia Mentor, Asian-Americans 25 to 54 spend 10% less time than average watching TV, 18% less time reading magazines and 55% less time listening to radio.
Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (right)
Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (right)

That requires reaching out to the demographic via local-language print, TV and radio. Instead of spending his time sofa surfing with David Letterman and Conan O'Brien, Mr. Lee found himself sitting down on Oct. 5 for a live, half-hour discussion with Orlando Shieh, host of "Talk Tonight," a Chinese-language call-in show at San Francisco's KTSF TV 26, the first Asian-formatted TV station in the U.S.

The hope is that the rest of the country will catch the film fever gripping Asian markets. "People are going to this movie and not being able to get in because all the seats are gone," Mr. Sullivan said. "That is going to have an impact on the Chinese market, the college market, the auteur market. In other words, a buzz is a buzz is a buzz."

Selling to the community

Asian-Americans are online
Nearly 90% of respondents to InterTrend's May 2007 Knowledge Center survey say they're online. And according to a study done by Multimedia Mentor, Asian-Americans ages 25 to 54 spend on average 50% more time on the internet then all other men in the same age group.

The native tongue tastes sweeter ...
They spend 10% less time than average watching TV, 18% less time than average reading magazines, and 55% less time than average listening to radio for a reason: local-language newspapers.

... but English is still most popular language online
English accounts for more than 35% of the total online population; Chinese is the second-most-popular language at nearly 14%. Japanese is fourth at nearly 8.5%, while Korean is seventh, at almost 4%.

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Sources: Jupiter Research, Pew Internet and American Life Project, Global Reach, Knowledge Networks; InterTrend.
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