Stand by Me Doraemon had premiered in Japan on August 8, 2014, so by the time it hit the Chinese cinema on May 28, 2015, a number of audience have already watched it in some theaters, or via BT Torrent. Also, the box office of Japanese animation films in China has been lukewarm for years: the highest grossing one used to be Detective Conan: Quarter of Silence 名探偵コナン: 沈黙の１５分クォーター, distributed in 2011 in China, earning 27.69 million RMB (4.36 million USD).
Kung Fu Panda 2 was the most welcomed foreign animation film, earning 612 million RMB (96.45 million USD) in 2011, while Ice Age: Continental Drift earned 447.4 million RMB (70.51 million USD). And then Stand by Me Doraemon came to China this spring, drawing the Chinese young to resume their collective memory in the cinema.
A whole generation’s collective memory
Back in the early 1990s, when the Internet was basically unheard of in Mainland China, reading comic books like Doraemon was children’s best pastime. Some would save up their pocket money to buy the books – 2 RMB per copy at the time was not a cheap deal, so some would go to rent them from library or bookstands.
The popular translation of Doraemon was Ji Qi Mao (literally means machine cat), a comics enjoyed by girls and boys alike, in elementary school, junior high or high school. The memory of the lazy and always bullied Nobita Nobi and his loyal and almighty pal Ji Qi Mao was an inseparable part of a generation’s childhood. Kids dreamt of having such a magic companion like him – this generation is the result of the one-child policy and after school, life could be lonely, let alone untold number of secret gadgets in the story to rectify anything unjust or unfair. The pure friendship and the characters’ courage were also inspiring.
Kids collected stickers, pencil box, eraser, and notebook or other stationery featuring Ji Qi Mao the way people collect stamps. It was kids’ cult back then.
Something precious that stays in your memory, unaffected by the passage of time or change of circumstances. So, when Doraemon finally came out as a 3D film, it suddenly became more real than ever before – it was almost like one could touch his or her childhood dream in the cinema, with their friends, or spouse, or even children, to trace the lost innocence.
Marketing mavericks were key
Marketing has never been more important in the Chinese film business – effective marketing can boost a film’s box office to a record high, and poor marketing device sometimes ruins a film’s reputation, or just does not help to spread its message and thus leads to sorry box office revenue, especially in the case of some imported films with a very limited theatrical release.
The usual marketing budget includes that of the billboard, bus stops, newspapers and magazines, theatrical trailer, cinema advertising and social media platforms like Weibo (China’s Twitter) and WeChat (a local WhatsApp).
Unlike most of the Chinese animation films that are targeting the small kids only, this film can reach different groups of people under forty years’ old. The marketers knew well that for those born in the 1980s and even 1990s, Doraemon had been a longtime virtual friend, so they used nostalgia, affection, friendship, true love, どこでもドア (anywhere door), time machine andタケコプター (take-copter) as some of the keywords in promoting the film.
The marketers did not position it a blockbuster but a nichebuster, a smaller movie targeted to a highly specific audience group, so the general tactic to “go big” did not apply. Instead, they chose the most cost-effective way of using really localized posters to appeal to the potential Chinese viewers.
Weeks before the movie opened nationwide, the promotion team had started a publicity blitz on WeChat and Weibo with these posters. The idea was to bombard the numerous (smart phone) users with so many relatable images about the movie that it became a “can’t miss” event. Elements of Peking Opera and China’s classic literary images like Journey to the West, The Dream of the Red Chamber were quite distinctive on those posters. This new concept of bridging classic images and neat execution caused the users to re-tweet the posters voluntarily – the cost for the marketers was the poster-design charge only, but the influence was widespread. It also successfully urged those who were less familiar with Doraemon to see the film.
In less than two months, the marketers cooperated with major e-shopping sites like JD and Taobao to do crossover promotion of Doraemon merchandising. Four days after its China release came the International Children’s Day, which also offered the promotion team yet another selling point to shout around.
Still, word-of-mouth was a key element. The message of the 3D Doraemon in town was a reason for lots of reunions and these people would pass on this message after watching the film, though some would complain there was nothing new. But the point was to experience one’s childhood favorite on the big screen – and memories shall remain intact.
The future possibilities
Due to various reasons, past box office of Japanese films in China was just OK. However, when look into the future, new possibilities are immense.
Let’s imagine when film adaptations of SLAM DUNK, Dr.スランプ, SAILOR MOON, 鉄腕アトム, SAINT SEIYA -セイントセイヤ- and more DETECTIVE CONAN Movies be imported to China, with proper marketing approaches, how amazed the audiences can be!
Meanwhile, let’s imagine a bit further, if GINTAMA -ぎんたま-, ONE PIECE -ワンーピス- and ジョジョの奇妙な冒険 shall be made into film and imported by Chinese distribution companies, how the publication industry, e-reading sites and merchandising etc. will be stimulated. After all, these works are all wildly popular in China.
Seeing the Japan Pavilion was back in Marché du Film at Cannes and a series of Japan Day seminars were organized, maybe one day the Tokyo Animation Fair will launch a Beijing branch to extend its influence in the Greater China Region; or maybe one day an online vote will be set by WeChat to advise which Japanese films shall be imported to cater for the local audience.
All in all, to enjoy a box office triumph in China, a film needs to be quite entertaining with memorable marketing to be granted enough screening slots. The success of Stand by Me Doraemon might be hard to duplicate, but it certainly gives local distributors more confidence to distribute Japanese films.