By Robert Cain November 22, 2011
In China there are two ways to create a box office blockbuster. One way is to target a large, hungry audience niche, create a crowd-pleasing film, and execute a clever and effective marketing campaign to put butts in seats. The other way is for the Communist Party to decree in advance that a film shall be a hit, clear competing movies out of the theaters, and then corral filmgoers into attending.
China’s first and second highest grossing domestic (i.e., non-Hollywood) films of 2011 have employed these two divergent approaches to tally up ticket sales. And while box office-by-command can certainly succeed, the more effective strategy, even in China, is to deliver a good old fashioned crowd-pleaser. In David vs. Goliath fashion, a little $1.4 million independent romantic comedy without stars or much of a marketing budget is poised to overtake a big budget, massively marketed, star-studded historical epic that had no less a backer than the Chinese government itself.
How did this happen? A look at the marketing tactics behind these two blockbusters can shed some light on how movie distribution works in China.
Beginning of the Great Marketing Blitz
Back in May of this year, government officials were preparing to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by readying the launch of their major pet project movie, Beginning of the Great Revival. Revival was a propaganda extravaganza (a “propaganza”?) funded and produced by China’s huge, state-owned studio, China Film Group (CFG).
Directed by CFG’s Chairman Han Sanping, the picture featured no fewer than 172 Chinese movie stars, including such luminaries as Chow Yun-Fat, Andy Lau, Fan Bingbing, Donnie Yen, Daniel Wu, Liu Ye, and mega-director John Woo in a rare acting appearance. The CCP officials responsible for Revival’s release let it be known that they ‘expected’ it to gross at least 800 million Renminbi, or about US $125 million. This target was more an executive order than a hope or dream.
It should be noted that with such a galaxy of stars, Revival would have likely cost a private film production company something like $100 million to produce. But when the Chinese government asks an actor to perform in a film, he or she is expected to work for little or no compensation. Indeed, according to director Han, the total actors’ payroll amounted to less than the cost of lunch boxes for the crew. Numerous other favors were extracted in mounting the film, so the officially announced budget of 80 million Renminbi ($13 million) understates Revival’s true cost by several orders of magnitude.
But even with all the stars in the Chinese firmament on their side, government officials worried that a looming Hollywood invasion might spoil their party. With the eagerly anticipated Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 scheduled to open in Chinese theaters just a few weeks after Revival’s launch, they anticipated that filmgoers would swiftly abandon Revival’s history lessons for the escapism offered by alien robots and the English wizard boy.
So the CCP did something Hollywood studio chiefs can only dream about: they shut out the competition. Completely.
You will watch this film and you will like it
When Beginning of the Great Revival opened on June 15, it had a near monopoly; the CCP saw to it that the film was running on most of China’s 6,200 movies screens. Transformers and Potter were postponed indefinitely. Not a single one of those screens was to be relinquished to the American films until Revival had reached the requisite number of ticket sales.
Problem was, few wanted to see Revival. Official reviews of the film in the state owned media were glowing, of course, but word on the street and on the internet was terrible. Bloggers passionately savaged the film. On VervCD, a file-sharing site, some 90 percent of commenters rated the film as “trash.”
So the CCP responded by doing what it does best. It censored all the negative reviews and mobilized the population. Ticket buying campaigns were organized; huge numbers of tickets were purchased by party organizations and state-owned companies. In Changchun alone, a city of about 7 million in Manchuria, the municipal government purchased 100,000 tickets for party members to see the film.
And at least some of those tickets were actually used by theater goers to see the propaganda picture. But savvy theater operators, eager to see Revival hit its numbers so that they could hustle the upcoming Hollywood films onto their screens, worked a bit of Chinese ingenuity to help the ‘propaganza’ along. They began selling tickets bearing the name Beginning of the Great Revival, but with the title scratched out and Kung Fu Panda, Fast Five, or Pirates of the Caribbean, written in by hand. This way the party got its ticket sale, the purchaser got to see the film they wanted, and the theater operator got the box office and concession business he needed.
As one wag wrote on China’s version of Twitter, “Even Kung Fu Panda has joined the Communist Party.” The Hollywood studios were clearly being short-changed, but even if they found out there was nothing they could do about it.
All this box office manipulation makes it impossible to say for sure how many people actually saw Beginning of the Great Revival or how much it truly earned. The officially reported final box office number—$62 million—fell far short of the party’s stated goal, and was mildly embarrassing. Still, Revival remained China’s top grossing home grown film of 2011 through the summer and into the fall, until a tiny upstart came out of nowhere to try and knock it off its perch.
Crazy Little Thing Called ‘Love’
When it rolled into theaters on November 8th, Love is Not Blind appeared to have little going for it. With a paltry budget of just 8.9 million RMB (US $1.4 million), a cast that, while recognizable, had little if any marquee value, and a director whose last film, 2007’s The Matrimony, had barely made a ripple at the box office, the film seemed destined for a short and uneventful life in theaters. On top of its other shortcomings, Love is Not Blind’s genre, romantic comedy, was widely viewed as box office poison in China: up until that point the six rom-coms released in 2011 had averaged just $4 million in ticket sales.
Furthermore, the competition that week was fierce, with one Hollywood special effects driven crowd pleaser, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, already dominating the box office, and two more, Real Steel and Immortals, set to open against Love. This time there would be no government intervention, no state-sponsored publicity blitz, no legions of party members buying tickets for the cause. The little $1.4 million picture would go it alone against a combined $350 million worth of Hollywood firepower.
But for all its disadvantages, Love is Not Blind was able to do something none of the Hollywood films could. Something that Revival had failed to do. It targeted a specific Chinese demographic—singles in the 27 to 35 year old cohort—with a contemporary social issue—the ticking marriage clock—and delivered a charming, funny film with a clever and innovative marketing campaign.
Love’s producing and marketing team built the film especially around single, educated women who are under pressure to marry. By the age of 27 almost every unmarried, educated Chinese woman falls into this category. The film’s protagonist, Xiaoxian, is a 27 year old “shengnu,” or “leftover woman,” whose marriage plans were heartbreakingly shattered when she discovered that her boyfriend of 7 years was seeing another woman on the side.
Without much cash to spend on advertising, the Love team turned to social media, leveraging the popularity of the online novel that was the basis for the film to foster dialogue and a community around the topics of breakups and marriage. Singles, and women especially, were encouraged on sites like Sina Weibo to chat and tweet and upload videos about their own breakup experiences.
The topic resonated beautifully with a very large audience. In the days leading up to the film’s release, some 6.6 million tweets were recorded on Sina Weibo, and on Baidu, China’s version of Google, the film’s Chinese title 失恋33天 (“33 Lovelorn Days”) set records for the most searches ever for a movie.
Love’s release was cleverly timed to coincide with “Singles Day,” an unofficial Chinese holiday that originated in the 1990s and which takes place every November 11th. On this day single people get together to celebrate, and those who wish to change their relationship status attend blind date parties in hopes of finding that special someone. This year the holiday had special significance since it fell on 11-11-11, which, turned out to be a very popular day for movie-going.
Popular especially for Love, as it turned out. In its opening weekend Love is not Blind out-grossed the combined revenue of Real Steel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Immortals, collecting nearly $29 million versus a combined total of $18.5 million for the three Hollywood blockbusters. In its second week it retained the number one spot at the box office against those three films and a newcomer from Steven Spielberg: The Adventures of Tintin. Love out-paced Tintin by a wide margin, $14 million to $9 million.
Most significantly, the tiny film drubbed Beginning of the Great Revival’s opening numbers: in its first week Love grossed over 50 percent more than Revival’s $18 million first week total. And even without the advantage of China’s vast Communist party machinery behind it, Love is Not Blind just might out-do Revival’s final $62 million tally.
Women hold up half the sky As an old Chinese proverb favored by Chairman Mao Zedong says, “women hold up half the sky.” And with its success Love is Not Blind has proved that when the right film is marketed in the right manner, women can hold up more than half the box office.
Love is Not Blind‘s success holds three key lessons for distributors and promoters of films in China. First, the market there is changing quickly, and the conventional wisdom regarding what types of films work or don’t work in China is almost always wrong. Second, women are dramatically under-served by both local and Hollywood offerings, and tremendous opportunity exists to serve this audience with good, properly marketed pictures. And finally, you can try to coerce or browbeat people into seeing your film, but the best way to reach moviegoers is to appeal to their minds and hearts.
Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.