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April 12, 2011

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Marketing makes movie money

CHINESE producers are finally beginning to use the marketing tricks of the trade - plus hype and naughty notions - to turn moderate-budget and sometimes unexceptional movies into box office winners. Xu Wei reports.

Chinese cinema may be booming but grossing 100 million yuan (US$15.3 million) at the box office has been all but mission impossible for most film makers. A few years ago few Chinese films made that cut. But last year five domestic films (and six foreign offerings) earned at least that much.

And all the five were moderate-budget films that were shrewdly marketed and promoted, such as the comedy-martial arts film "Just Call Me Nobody," which was budgeted at only 40 million yuan but managed to make 160 million yuan at the box office during the highly competitive Christmas and New Year's season.

"Chinese producers are gaining a lot of expertise and experience in film marketing and promotion from their foreign peers during intensive competition," says Qu Jun, a marketing and public relations official of the Shanghai Film Group and Emperor Group Culture Development Co Ltd.

"Just Call Me Nobody," he says, had several pre-release rounds of promotion. Starring comedians Zhao Benshan and Xiao Shenyang, the film about a bumbling cobbler who becomes a martial arts master also features a lot of funny episodes of northeast China's typical er ren zhuan song-and-dance duets.

"The promotion created a clear image in the mind of the target audience, people from China's northeastern provinces," Qu explains. Then, throughout its screening, marketers built momentum with film posters, outdoor LED ads and online interview videos about behind-the-scenes stories about the movie making.

Microblogging increasingly plays an important role in promotion, shortening the psychological distance between celebrities and film makers and the audience. Production teams now commonly put updates about the film on microblogs - and adjust their marketing strategy based on feedback.

To get more media exposure, some producers use clumsy media hype about a film's risque content, its casts' personal lives and some weird behind-the-scenes stories.

Movie-goer Zhang Jian says he's a big fan of famous actor Ge You and was duped by the promotion of "Gasp" (2009) that touted Ge as the leading actor.

"In fact, Ge just made a guest appearance in this insipid production," Zhang recalls. "I felt I was cheated."

Gossiping "love affairs" among leading stars is another way to hook the audience and boost revenue.

For example, before the debut of "Mulan" (2009), photos were released of the leading actress Zhao Wei taking a bath with leading man Chen Kun. But the photos were just a scene in the movie.

Some movies are believed to hype their announced budget and box office numbers. In 2009, the production team for Zhang Yimou's "A Simple Noodle Story" was criticized for inflating the movie's investment. The film was budgeted at 60 million yuan; producers claimed it was 100 million yuan and said it was a commercial blockbuster.

Early rounds of promotion and media hype do attract movie-goers, but after the first audience wave, only the solid films will do well in the box office, according to most experts.

"Producers and distributors are now trying all kinds of means to grab the audience's attention and stir up gossip about the movie," says Professor Gu Xiaoming, a film critic and expert from Fudan University.

"But in fact, amazing box office doesn't necessarily mean amazing film. Chinese cinema still lacks originality and variety. It has a long way to go before it can make more genuinely moving and powerful films."


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