Tom Dey tells EW Online why he thinks the studio's ad campaign equals weak box office

By Lori Reese
Updated June 08, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Shanghai Noon”’s opening weekend of $19.6 million (and 10-day take of $32.2 million) might seem pretty good to many, but not to the film’s director, Tom Dey. ”I had thought we were going to open at about $30 million,” he tells EW Online. ”’Rush Hour’ [Jackie Chan’s last Hollywood film] opened at $30 million, and I thought we could at least do as well as that.”

Dey says the buzz preceding ”Shanghai”’s release had boosted his hopes for hitting such a box office bonanza. February previews were ”amazing,” he insists. So much so that Disney execs opted to open the movie on Memorial Day weekend — two months ahead of schedule.

But now the 31 year old director is blaming Disney for what he considers the film’s box office shortfall. He says it was a mistake for studio marketers to sell the movie on its corny ”fish out of water” high jinks, rather than its more elevated theme about friendship between two opposites, Chon Wang (Jackie Chan) and Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson). ”I feel like it was misrepresented,” says Dey. ”The trailers really dumbed it down.”

Clips of one-liners and in your face gags chosen for the movie’s promos were exactly the story elements Dey wanted to cut when he initially opted to helm the film. At first, he wasn’t interested when Disney execs offered him ”Shanghai” because the humor was ”too broad,” he says. But after he was allowed to make changes — adding dimension to the characters and grit to the scenes of Chinese slavery in the old West — he decided to take it on. ”I really tried hard to give it extra layers. To make it about something: friendship, exploitation. These are real things that mean something.”

The longtime director of commercials says he was further frustrated by his lack of control in the marketing of his feature debut: ”It was hard because here was the most important product of my life, and I was pretty much frozen out of any involvement in terms of how to sell it.”

Disney execs declined to talk to EW Online about Dey’s complaints. But it’s only fair to point out that it would have been tough for ”Shanghai” to match ”Rush Hour”’s opening weekend, even WITH a campaign that highlighted the director’s embellishments. For one thing, the 1998 buddy comedy’s boffo $33 million opening weekend take caught even industry insiders by surprise (Chan’s previous theatrical foray, ”Mr. Nice Guy,” opened at a mere $5.3 million earlier that year).

What’s more, ”Rush Hour”’s biggest competitor was the critically lauded but dismal $6.1 million opener ”One True Thing.” And ”Shanghai”’s? Oh, just a little flick called ”Mission: Impossible 2,” which pulled in $70.8 million with the help of Tom Cruise and Hollywood’s hottest Asian director, John Woo.

There’s still some hope, however. Benevolent critics have noticed Dey’s efforts to bring thematic depth to ”Shangai” — even if, as he asserts, Disney’s marketers chose to ignore them. Many have even given the movie higher marks than its box office nemesis, ”M:I-2.” ”It’s the most frustrating thing because the reviews all say that we are the better film,” says Dey. ”Yet people still keep going to the other one.” We thought that’s why they invented multiplexes.