Helping Hollywood reach China's fans

With 160 mn users per month, Mtime is a mix of Fandango, IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes and Yahoo Movies
Last Updated 23 August 2015, 18:44 IST
Now that Hollywood has mostly figured out how to get its biggest movies approved for release in China, studio marketers in Los Angeles are grappling with a new puzzle: What is the best way to woo China’s ticket buyers?

Trailers and television advertisements, the two most effective methods to drum up interest, are difficult marketing tools to use in China. Chinese theaters do not typically play trailers. The cost of advertising on TV can be exorbitant, in part because studios must buy time at the last minute. China usually limits foreign films to an advertising window of a few weeks.

Instead, film companies pay for outdoor banners and signs, advertise online, team up with local promotional partners and, increasingly, call a company with enormous reach that few people outside of China have ever heard of: Mtime.

Founded in 2005 in Beijing by Kelvin Hou, a former Microsoft executive, Mtime started as an online listing of movie times, hence the name. Then a film database was built and added. Next came a movie-news service, aggregation of user-submitted reviews, a movie-scoring system and an online ticket service for 3,000 theaters. Now attracting 160 million unique desktop and mobile users per month, according to Hou, Mtime is effectively Fandango, IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes and Yahoo Movies rolled into one.

And for a fee, Mtime will promote movies through all of these services, helping studios to quickly cover a market they covet but do not yet fully understand.

Next comes merchandising: Mtime, which counts Fidelity Growth Partners and CBC Capital among its backers, has started designing movie-themed products that are sold on its website and inside Chinese multiplexes. Mtime began opening these “merchandising centres,” many in partnership with Wanda Cinemas, China’s largest theater operator, in January. Hou will have 80 of these centres operating by December. “All of a sudden, it’s a wild fire,” he said over coffee at a hotel here in June.

Walt Disney Studios was one of Mtime’s early merchandising partners. According to Hou, Mtime sold 300 items tied to “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which was released in China in June. Recently, “Cinderella” dresses were selling on Mtime’s site for $53.

In itself, the ability to sell merchandise inside Chinese theaters is tantalising to Hollywood, which is trying to improve the profitability of releasing films in China, a movie market that is soon expected to surpass the United States as the world’s largest.

Ticket sales totalled $4.8 billion last year, a 34 per cent increase from a year earlier, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. But foreign studios typically receive a 25 per cent share of ticket sales from China; Hollywood’s cut from movies released in North America is closer to 50 per cent.

American studios have long relied on sales of movie-themed products elsewhere in the world, but China has been difficult to crack, in part because cheap knock-offs proliferate overnight. But there appears to be a shift at hand. Disney, for instance, in May opened its first Disney Store in China. Zeng Maojun, president of Wanda Theater Group, said in a statement that the Mtime partnership “marks an important milestone in China’s movie market,” with movie merchandise shifting from a niche to “a vital part of the lifestyle market.”

In some ways, the retail centres function as Trojan horses for studio marketers to show movie trailers. While the centres vary in size, they all add a big screen to theater lobbies in the form of nine 52-inch televisions, which form a wall. And Mtime sells that space to studios for trailers and other promotions as part of “total solutions” marketing packages, according to Afrat Spalding, an Mtime vice president who works from an office in Burbank, California.

Pricing varies based on the scope of what a studio wants, she said. Over the weekend, Universal and Sony used Mtime theater screens to run trailers for “Minions” and “Pixels,” which are set for release in China in mid-September.

Sunnie Shen, a 20th Century Fox marketing executive in Beijing, praised Mtime’s recent work on “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” “Within a short promotion window of three weeks, Mtime delivered five comprehensive editorials, developed social games and promoted the movie heavily on their ticketing app,” Shen said in an email.

Mtime is not alone in this arena. Douban, an arts-focused social network, has as much sway in the movie-review realm, if not more, operating a scoring system based on critiques from tens of thousands of users. For those seeking movie news, Mtime competes with the entertainment sections of Internet companies like Sina, Tencent and Sohu.

Tencent – which owns the wildly popular WeChat messaging service that, marketing executives say, has itself become a crucial movie promotional tool – is also a major movie ticket seller, along with Baidu and Alibaba Group.

But no competitor has integrated all of these functions under one umbrella in the way Mtime has. That integration plays a role in its influence on Hollywood, and not just because Mtime has created an environment of one-stop promotional shopping.
“Mtime is useful as a marketing partner,

but it’s not totally indispensable,” said one
studio executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “At the same time, you have to be mindful that it controls a huge amount of ticketing and has an influential movie scoring system.”

No influence of marketing

Mtime movie scores and reviews are “never, never” affected by who does and doesn’t buy marketing packages, Hou said. “Marketing is totally separate. We do not change film scores and reviews.”

In fact, the company has rankled Chinese movie studios over the years by giving a prominent forum to negative user-submitted reviews. (Of Mtime’s relationship with these studios, Hou said, “Mtime respects their artistic integrity and choice, and they respect that users have the right to judge a movie.”) In 2011, both Mtime and Douban disabled the review system for “Beginning of the Great Revival,” a movie celebrating the Communist Party of China’s 90th anniversary. Hou declined to comment.

Hou did, however, talk with pride about his news operation, which now has a staff of 110. Along with producing articles about music, television and movies (recent headline: “Young Brits Pan for Gold in Hollywood: Have Americans Had Their Rice Bowl Snatched Away?”), Mtime’s news division interviews Hollywood stars and pumps out clips to dozens of local television station partners.

While Mtime does hard-hitting industry news – a report about supposedly shady business dealings of Chinese film distributors, for instance – its coverage more closely resembles “Access Hollywood,” without the focus on celebrity dating or personal scandals.

Raymond Zhou, a Chinese film critic, uses Mtime as an “IMDb equivalent,” he said, referring to the Internet Movie Database, and finds it particularly useful for its data on older Chinese films. But he and others in the industry say they almost never pay attention to its editorial section.

“Whatever you see is greatly affected by advertising,” Zhou said. “It’s not independent.” He added that he had seen a similar problem with entertainment news on the sites Sohu, Tencent and Sina.

(Published 23 August 2015, 18:43 IST)

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