‘Tiger,’ Tiger Burning Bright

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” has officially become the little foreign film to watch this year.

In case you still haven’t heard of it, the martial-arts epic — directed by Taiwanese helmer Ang Lee and starring Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh, was the talk of the festival-indie circuit the world round, winning the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and nabbing the Best Foreign Film nod from the National Board of Review.

But it is the box office figures from the film’s debut last Friday in New York that has the whole industry buzzing. Despite playing on only 16 screens, the film took in an estimated $686,000 over the Friday to Sunday period — a big showing, to say the least.

“We’ve always said that this is the movie event of the year,” Sony Classics Co-President Tom Bernard told Daily Variety. “I think this proves us correct.”

And the good news is that this is only the beginning. With “Tiger” opening up this weekend in Los Angeles and expanding throughout the country this month and January, the film could generate enough word of mouth to make itself a true killing at the box office.

And on top of that, there’s the Oscar hype. Taiwan has already submitted the film as its entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2001 Academy Awards, but the film’s U.S. studio — Sony Pictures Classics — is also angling the film for the ultimate loot: a Best Picture nomination, hoping that it would do what Roberto Benigni‘s “Life Is Beautiful” did at the Oscars in 1999.

“The studio is trying to build a word of mouth for this film. They’re probably praying for an Oscar nomination [for Best Picture] and [then] have the film go wide,” box office analyst Brandon Gray of boxofficemojo.com told Hollywood.com.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” opens in L.A. on Friday.