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June 16, 2011

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Box office buzz

THE Chinese film industry relies overwhelmingly on box office sales to regenerate revenue, not licensed product spin-offs. So good marketing is the key, reports Li Anlan.

In McDonald's restaurants around Shanghai, posters of panda Po from "Kung Fu Panda" urge customers to go to the cinemas and watch the Hollywood blockbuster.

Behind the successful box office of domestic and international hits are strong marketing teams devising way to target views and spending vast sums on promotion in advance and throughout release.

While Hollywood and international hits have a well-developed marketing chain with numerous product spin-offs, such as clothing, comics and action characters, the Chinese movie market still relies overwhelmingly on box office for revenue. One reason is relative immaturity of the market and concerns about intellectual property rights issues, especially in cases of advance promotion and spin-offs. There's little coordination between releasing the film and marketing related products.

Thus, getting as many people to the cinemas as possible is the key to the box office success and a healthy film industry, says media Professor Yin Hong from Tsinghua University who recently addressed a forum on marketing hosted by the Shanghai International Film Festival.

Because of "Avatar" and several other box office hits, the Chinese movie market experienced a huge peak last year, grossing more than 10 billion yuan (US$1.5 billion) and making it one of the world's fastest growing movie markets.

Last December was especially interesting since four Chinese blockbusters were released in the same month: Zhu Yanping's "Just Call Me Nobody" on December 3, Jiang Wen's "Let the Bullets Fly" on December 16, Chen Kaige's "Sacrifice" on December 18 and Feng Xiaogang's "If You Are the One II" on December 22.

In the same month, "Black Swan," "Tron: Legacy" and other foreign films were also released, making it a busy month for movie fans.

All four Chinese films were hits, and the box office for each exceeded 100 million yuan. "Let the Bullets Fly" took in nearly 700 million yuan. This was partly because of an all-star cast as well as expensive and effective marketing. Producer Ma Ke told the forum that the story, a solid plot, is the most important element in success and early distribution and marketing are essential.

"Our strategy was step-by-step, running things in a reliable and sure way," Ma said. "Marketing and publicity should pay attention to every detail."

Eight months prior to the release, the company had already bought prime locations for billboards in Beijing, and the whole marketing process was 19 months long.

In different cities, the marketing teams used different strategies, aiming to attract more people to the cinemas, including those who don't go often.

It is expensive, too. The cost of making "Bullets" was 110 million yuan, and marketing cost 50 million yuan. The risks are higher when spending more on marketing, so are the rewards.

"Just Call Me Nobody" is an example of a successful low-budget fillm; the 40-million-yuan production took in more than 100 million yuan at the box office.

At the film festival forum, movie market analyst Liu Jia said that there are several reasons this film succeeded in December, competing with other big releases. "Their market position was accurate," Liu said. "The marketing was unconstrained, and the strategies were low profile."

Simple and catchy

First, the campaign was easy for the public to accept. The slogan was "One, Two, Three, A Laugh Solves All Worries." One, two, three was the release date, December 3 (12/3). It was simple and catchy.

Second, Liu said that this film spent generously on marketing, doing TV advertisements and commercials. Film makers also printed a million copies of "Jiang Hu Flash Report," a newspaper-like poster in the film's Chinese namesake.

However, should all films be crowded into the same month? Surely it's fun for audiences and the competition is fierce, but is it good for the industry? Risks are high and failure is always a possibility.

Yu Dong, founder and chairman & CEO of Bona Film, told the film forum that marketing strategies should be planned well in advance.

"Major film companies should have early plans for next year's films," Yu said. "The earlier the distribution strategies start, the more opportunities a film can get, and better its chances of success."

The film's content itself is the No. 1 factor, and the second is the release date, according to Wu Hehu, vice manager of Shanghai United Cinema Circuit.

Solid content, a good story well plotted, coherent and well paced is essential. That's what first strikes filmgoers. An ordinary film can be publicized as a blockbuster, but the audience quickly realizes - and passes the word - that the advertisements are just stunts and the film doesn't live up to its billing.

An example is this year's "The Lost Bladesman," which sold more than 100 million yuan in tickets in the first weekend. But when the public reviews came in - it was a dud - the box office for the next few weeks was only a few million yuan.

Director Wang Xiaoshuai, famous for "Beijing Bicycle" (2001), reaffirmed the necessity of interesting content.

"As the number of cinemas increases, more content is needed," Wang said. "Directors should have their own ideas so in the future there will be more diversity on the screen and more ways to enjoy films."

Another opportunity for the Chinese film industry is digital screening (replacing traditional film with an electronic copy) and it's coming into the mainstream. Digital screening is cheaper and can bring diversity to cinemas, providing the audiences with more choices, instead of just a number of blockbusters.

Zhang Baoquan, cochairman and president of Antaeus Group Co Ltd, said it's important to increase the number of cinemas in China, which has around 6,000 film screens at this time.

"Cinemas should become a new media platform," Zhang said. "In China, 75 percent of the regions and cities have no cinemas." He suggested developing cinemas proportionally: 15-20 percent large, 60-70 percent of medium and 15-20 percent small.

Shimao Cinema Investment Co Ltd will collaborate with Dolby and Christie to build more fashionable and interactive i-cinemas around China. According to Liu Ming, general manager of Shimao, they expected to have 60 multifunctional theaters and 500 screens in five years.

The cinemas featuring e-commerce facilities and "experience areas" of film stunts and new technology will mainly target the post-80s generation.

Because of the digitalization reduces the cost of production, more money can be used on marketing and there are more opportunities to make low-budget movies, according to Liu.


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