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'Hero' Soars to Late August Record

by Brandon Gray
Jet Li in Hero
August 29, 2004

HOLLYWOOD (Box Office Mojo)—The penultimate gasp of summer 2004 showed some unexpected kick courtesy of a two-year-old, subtitled, period piece—albeit one sold on dazzling visuals and action.

Wiring $18.0 million from 2,031 locations over the weekend, Hero eclipsed Bring It On's $17.4 million as the biggest end of August opening ever and posted a distant second best foreign language debut behind The Passion of the Christ's $83.8 million. It also nudged past Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's peak 2,027 theaters to become the widest Asian release of all time.

As Hero won the top spot, Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid uncoiled in second place with $12.8 million at 2,905 theaters. Suspect Zero and Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2 were predictably anemic with $3.4 million at 1,500 and $3.3 million at 1,276 respectively. Over seven years have passed since the first Anaconda squeezed out a potent $65.9 million in 1997—it's $16.6 million debut the equivalent of selling nearly $23 million worth of tickets today—and it's been more than five years since the first Baby Geniuses crawled to a decent $27.3 million in 1999. For its part, Suspect Zero has been in the can for nearly two years.

Breaking the weekend down, Hero earned an estimated $6.7 million on Friday, $6.6 million on Saturday and $4.7 million on Sunday. According to studio exit polling, over 60% of the audience was male and the majority was age 20-30. Miramax paid $21 million for domestic rights and for the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy and other territories.

Miramax drew criticism for the way it handled Hero. Its fall 2002 release in Asia and its Best Foreign Language nomination at the 2003 Academy Awards portended to it hitting theaters by spring 2003. The distributor constantly shuffled release dates, raising questions if it would ever reach theaters—all the while the picture had been available on DVD from overseas markets. When the late August date and a limited release pattern were finally announced, it appeared as if Miramax was unceremoniously clearing out inventory as studios often do this time of year.

As Aug. 27 approached, the buzz built—Hero sold itself in part through glowing word-of-mouth from around the world. A marketing campaign centered on star Jet Li and the movie's sheer spectacle put it over the top, not to mention the addition of Quentin Tarantino's name after his Kill Bill success. Miramax progressively grew more confident—most notably in the final week when the theater count suddenly blossomed from an estimated 1,200 to 2,031—and it paid off in the end.

"Our strategy was a grossly misunderstood by the press," Miramax head of worldwide public relations Amanda Lundberg told Box Office Mojo. "We wanted to get some distance from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We didn't want to go when Asia went."

The splitting of the martial arts-infused Kill Bill into two movies—Vol. 1 in Oct. 2003 and Vol. 2 this past April—presented an opportunity to build awareness for Hero but delayed it further. "You couldn't get a better marketing tool for Hero than to attach the trailer to Kill Bill," Lundberg explained.

Often not given the box office credit he deserves, Li once again displayed that he can open a picture—his last five have now averaged $17.0 million out of the gate. On its opening day alone, Hero also became the highest grossing picture of director Zhang Yimou's career. Though his movies such as Raise the Red Lantern and The Road Home have been highly regarded, all have been limited releases, often grossing around $2 million—modest overall but strong in the foreign language arena.

Yimou's next picture House of Flying Daggers, starring Zhang Ziyi from Hero and Crouching Tiger, is poised for platform release starting Dec. 3 by Sony Pictures Classics—five years after the specialty distributor nurtured Crouching Tiger to its smashing $128.1 million success.

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