What’s New in China’s Film Marketing?

In 2013, the annual revenue of China’s film market has reached $3.4 billion. The fast growing number of screens is one of the reasons. 5,077 screens have been built in 2013 alone: almost 14 new screens were built per day. Assorted film marketing marvels is another factor. Marketers use their ingenuity to help build one box office wonder after another. In 2013, spending on film marketing is estimated to reach $45 million in China.

Producer Zhang Weiping, whom director Zhang Yimou once worked closely with, is generally considered the first person who uses marketing to make the film travel and generate millions of profits. During Hero’s promotion, he designed unconventional press conference and utilized concerts to promote this film. Such new approaches hooked the audience, awed fellow filmmakers, and generated millions of box office. Distribution veteran Geng Yuejin once said: “Zhang was the pioneer that educated the whole film industry about the power of marketing with Hero, which set a model, a reference.”

But that was ten years ago, what about now?

These days, there are five new trends of China’s film marketing.

I. Marketers joining a film project in the development stage.
Aware that marketing is different from mere publicity, Chinese marketers begin to join  film projects from the development stage, even to help build the story and script.

The goal? Integrated Marketing.

In the past, it was not until a film had finished shooting would its marketing kicked off. Marketers often needed to exaggerate to force a miracle. When they found some films were just impossible to powder and they were scolded by the production and distribution companies for pale BO revenue, they decided to take more control: to shape up a film from the very beginning.

Zhang Wenbo, one of leading figures in social media marketing, left marketing to go for film production after a line of successful marketing cases. His idea was to build a film tailored with marketing strategies since day one.

In Say Yes, marketing was no longer a self-serving voice of a film anxious to make a box office wonder, but a line of relevant product placements in the film’s romantic setting. The decision of leading roles (Huang Bo and Lin Chi-ling) and the date of film premiere (Valentine’s Day) were also based on marketing research and product positioning. The small budget film finally won $32 million at the box office.

Zhang Wenbo’s shift from a marketer to a producer was a change of perspective to test marketing’s value of creativity and profitability. Now, besides production, he is back with his Bravo Marketing, in order to make more marketable films.

He is not alone. Marketers like Zheng Xun and Liang Wei agree that it boosts a film’s box office performance when marketing penetrates filmmaking. Also, it does help to collect more resources for the film. According to Li Yaping, the producer of Beijing Love Story, this film had gathered different resources worth over ¥1 billion as channels and integrated marketing before the film even met the audience.

It is true that product placement has never been so intensively spotted in films made in China. Some are seamless; others are a bit too spiky.

Online and offline marketing helps to drive a boom in China's box office

O2O marketing helps to drive a boom in China’s box office

II. The fall of advertising, the rise of PR.
All the recent film marketing successes have been PR successes, not advertising ones. To name just a few: Love Is Not Blind, Tiny Times and Dad, Where Are We Going?

To have 1,000 spreads and posters in the metro or bus stops in the top ten cities in China would usually cost about $1million. To have all this going on for about a month would double the price. Advertising takes big bucks only blockbusters could afford.

“Never underestimate the power of a third party,” said An Yugang, CEO of In Entertainment. In his opinion, two major sources for audiences to make a decision are the media and word of mouth.

In Entertainment has been social media marketing support for a number of Hollywood films’ smashing BO in China, including Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

When Yao Chen, an actress hailed as the Queen of Weibo, posts a poster of her upcoming film, there would be 20,000 shares or more within hours. Social media matters.

How to convert such online influence into offline solid ticket purchase? Marketers are organizing O2O events: more catchy proverbs written for each character poster, instead of a blurred image; more interactive meetings held between fans and their idols, instead of flat press conferences; more topics and keywords designed to strengthen the brand image.

All kinds of messages allure you to see the film. At the end of the day, this film becomes such a social phenomenon that you cannot go on the conversation with your colleague or classmate, if you have not watched it.

III. Marketing as the pushing hands for art films’ growing box office.
Set factors like inflation and exchange rate aside, the highest grossing major award-winning art film is Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution back in 2007 when China had no more than 4,000 screens.

Getting an award from a major international film festival has almost become a curse for art films’ box office in China. Can an award be that detrimental?

A jury member in this year’s Berlinale recently said to the press one of the reasons why Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land did not get an award is because the jury generally does not award box office winners, which leads to interesting thoughts.

Talking about art films’ reception in China, we need to check the average age of the Chinese audience: 21. White collars in big cities don’t have much time to entertain, while young people in smaller cities who are desperate to have an alternative life elsewhere and students at different ages all over the nation are the major targets of any given film.

Box office of China's recent awarded art films

Local box office of China’s recent awarded art films

Take Black Coal, Thin Ice as an example to examine how marketing has helped it to fend off the “curse” of two major awards in Berlinale 2014. Premiered on March 21, the film has no gossip material as the actors are too professional to have any rumor or affairs going on, the director’s first two features have never reached the mainstream cinema and the story might be a little too cold for a spring day, but its BO reached $16.78 million, making it the third highest grossing art film in China next to Lust, Caution and White Deer Plain.

The film’s marketing campaign leader Zheng Ling from China Magic Film unveiled her magic: a popular novelist was hired to write a story to explain the somewhat vague Chinese name of the film “BAI RI YAN HUO”, meaning daylight fireworks; cakes and cocktails of this name were designed and spread out in cafés and bars; NBA star Carmelo Anthony’s name was mentioned among the list of its investors; influential writers and critics were invited to express their interpretation of the film on Weibo. Discussions about sex, about the director’s notes, about the actors’ lifestyle, and references about Takeshi Kitano and Quentin Tarantino were all over the place.

This shows investors that an art film is possible to sell well in China. And it is good timing. After the personnel change of the China Film Group, favorable terms for local art films begin to take effect.

Nevertheless, there is no universal formula. Each has his own splendor. Cheng Yuhai, Executive Producer of The Golden Era said his assistants recruited from director Ann Hui’s dedicated fans were so helpful that one tenth of the pictures taken on set by them has already made a charming photography exhibition. Senior people came to see these photos with their family as a search of the lost times. When marketing rises to this level, it is not about mere profits any more.

IV. Big film companies putting more attention on marketing.
While various marketing companies are getting more professional, big film companies, like Huayi Brothers and Enlight Media, are getting more media savvy and build their own social media marketing departments.

LeVision Pictures, holding a fine track record last year with 2 Tiny Times films, goes even further. Different from last year’s declaration as a film marketing company, it announced to become an internet company this spring, meaning it will put more focus on the internet business model. LeVision has also divided its traditional marketing department into 5 more specific marketing sections: mainstream marketing include local newspapers, especially in third or fourth tier cities, social media marketing, on-site marketing including merchandizing and theme cinema, O2O pre-sale marketing and integrated marketing to dance with various brands.

Zhang Yimou’s new film Coming Home premieres on May 16, during Cannes where it is invited into the Out of Competition section. But before Cannes’ announcement, a number of events have already spread: Zhang flew to New York to have a public talk with Ang Lee; in less than three weeks, the Chinese media was flooded with stories of Steven Spielberg weeping during watching this film. The film also boasts to be the first 4K/IMAX art film in China.

Eyeballs and engagement, both are crucial. LeVision, the production and distribution company of Coming Home, has also designed 2 million current bottles with a love letter in to show how people express love in the times the film is set.

Big studios have their own marketing team, but they will still work with marketing companies in times of need. As the Vice President of LeVision Chen Su said, we do not need to do everything on our own – the China film market is a growing pie, each side can get his share.

New trends keep coming and it is still too early to define the importance of marketing in this huge market. When marketing companies grow big, line extension is a reasonable direction. Founders of these companies turn into producers and distributors. Liang Wei from Magilm Pictures has already obtained venture capital last year and is working on to expand his business to film production, distribution, talent agency and even cinema building. Liang believes every big film company in China will grow into a marketing company in the foreseeable future. In his opinion, the main task of major studios in Hollywood is to sell films, and they are marketing corporations in essence.

Two words for China’s current film marketing?

Intimacy & interaction.

This article was originally published on The Chinese Film Market.

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