Publicity and Distribution Companies Escorted Stephen Chow to be King of the Chinese Box Office

Stephen Chow greeted the Year of Monkey with his new film The Mermaid which dominates the Mainland box office, living up to his loyal fans’ expectations. The Mermaid was released in China on February 8, 2016. Upon release, it broke numerous box office records. It set an opening day record of 280 million yuan and rapidly conquered the Mainland film market, averaging 230 million yuan daily within its opening week. It became the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time, setting a box office record of 2.751 billion yuan within 15 days of release, overtaking the former champion Monster Hunt.

The Mermaid was released during Spring Festival. Director Stephen Chow, as famously low-key and elusive as he is, has an unquestionably powerful box-office appeal. Nine companies were engaged in the production of The Mermaid. In response to the online rumor of two million yuan minimum guaranteed at the box office, two related companies – Hehe (Shanghai) Pictures Co., Ltd. and Longteng Yidu (Beijing) Pictures Investment Co., Ltd. – said in media interviews that the minimum guarantee had definitely been exaggerated, and the actual sum was around 1.6 to 1.8 billion yuan with no more than three companies involved. It was also disclosed that the minimum guarantee was operated by a fund launched by Hehe (Shanghai) Pictures Co., Ltd., the leading investor. The other two companies involved contributed to the fund.

In an effort to unveil the backstage stories behind the box office miracle that is The Mermaid from the perspectives of investment, marketing, and distribution, Sina Entertainment interviewed the core teams from Hehe (Shanghai) Pictures (the production and investment company), Tianjin Lianrui Pictures (the distribution company) and Beijing MaxTimes Culture Development Co., Ltd (the marketing company).


Accurate Marketing and Close Cooperation

Established in July 2013, Hehe (Shanghai) Pictures, young as it is, has been quietly involved in a number of important film and television projects. It is a supportive partner of the FIRST International Film Festival Xining and also the main investor of its Bingchi Plan. Hehe’s president, Yang Wei, said in an interview: “Hehe (Shanghai) Pictures has been an investor in The Mermaid project since the initial preparatory stage.” Beijing MaxTimes Culture Development Co., Ltd. has been involved in the marketing of important projects such as The Flowers of War, So Young, the Tiny Times series,Breakup Buddies, and Monk Comes Down the Mountain over the past few years. As a young distribution company founded in 2013, Tianjin Lianrui Pictures became famous by distributing a series of films with good box office sales and word of mouth, such as Monster Hunt, 20 Once Again, and Our Times. “The box office success this time is a consequence of the clear division of responsibility among the three companies that worked together and reached consensus on major strategies throughout the whole process,” said Ms. Yang Wei in an interview. She also said that the close cooperation between the three companies and Stephen Chow, accurate marketing, and responsible distribution, were three elements that guaranteed the success of The Mermaid.

Yang Wei said: “As well as running Star Overseas, Stephen Chow was the general director and decision maker for publicity and distribution. Marketing company Beijing MaxTimes Culture Development Co., Ltd. was responsible for the development of the overall marketing strategy and its planning and implementation when approved by Star Overseas; Tianjin Lianrui Pictures was responsible for the film’s entire distribution while Hehe (Shanghai) Pictures looked after the management of the publicity and distribution costs as well as liaison among various resource providers. Black Ant Pictures, shareholder of Hehe (Shanghai) Pictures,   was responsible for cooperation liaison among commercial resources and the development of derivative products.”

Tianjin Lianrui Pictures was in charge of the overall strategy, planning, program for- mulation, adjustment and execution of the distribution of The Mermaid with help from Central Motion Picture, Beijing Enlight Pictures, SMI Corporation and Sihai Alliance (an alliance of five film distribution companies based in five Chinese provinces). Central Motion Picture, Shanghai Film Co., Ltd., Dadi Media, Jinyi Cinema, and Sihai Alliance worked together to carry out the distribution for the project. In developing strategies for overall distribution, Tianjin Lianrui Pictures planned running schedules, distribution strategies, roadshows, session arrangements, e-commerce co- operations, commercial placements, and pre-sale, taking into consideration the powerful brand effect of Stephen Chow and the family-oriented nature of the film.

“We insisted that it be released during Spring Festival. We agreed with Beijing Maxtimes Culture Development Co., Ltd. to adopt the strategy of “hunger marketing”, that’s to say, no premieres before the public release. All parties involved worked together on the details for press conferences and fan meetings in nearly 20 cities nationwide. In terms of session arrangement, we ensured that the percentage of the sessions on the first day was over 33%, which ranked first among films in the same period. We also considered the uniqueness of the Spring Festival period, when whole families go to cinema together. Therefore, we made inspection tours to many cinemas and seamlessly linked distribution to various resources, marketing, and businesses,” said Cai Yuan, President of Tianjin Lianrui Pictures.

Yue Yang, President of Beijing Max- times Culture Development Co., Ltd. said: “Before release, our main task was to lower expectations without losing market attractiveness, which proved to be very tricky. Post-release, the focus was shifted to word-of-mouth (WOM) marketing. We needed to guide public opinion by spreading good reviews. Watching “The Mermaid” became a trendy thing to do, and people were encouraged to follow the trend. ”

Normally, the release of a Stephen Chow movie (including the re-screening of his classic films) will be accompanied by online comments along the lines of “he comes to arouse our old memories again”. A trope that used to be popular on Sina Weibo goes like this: “it’s time to pay back a ticket we owe for Stephen Chow.” Given this situation, Yue Yang believes that although The Mermaid made use of memories for marketing (a sort of “nostalgia- oriented marketing”), audiences are never forced to consume. “We are not allowed to use the trope ‘it’s time to pay back a ticket we owe for Stephen Chow’ for marketing and promotion. To be honest, in a highly market- oriented era, audiences do not owe us anything. It is only the quality of movies that matters. However, we must recognize that Mr. Chow remains an idol for a generation of filmgoers.” Yue Yang said: “For the sake of nostalgia, we decided to ask Adam Cheng and Karen Mok to sing the theme song. Our marketing efforts, in both traditional media and new media, all attempt to direct people’s attention to what Mr. Chow has brought us. Take the production and spread of three trailers released before the movie debut for example. They are related to three important Stephen Chow films: A Chinese Odyssey Part Two – Cinderella, King of Comedy and The God of Cookery. They are all films audiences are quite familiar with. It’s a very rare opportunity to have audiences of different ages. The way to arouse their passion for this movie is the focus of the marketing. The relationship between Chow and his audience is marked by the exchange of warmth and enlightenment rather than merely give-and-take.”


Giving Something Back to Fans

Unlike Chow’s previous movies, The Mermaid was unusual in that it was kept secret from everyone involved, including cinema managers, media staff, filmmakers, and film critics, until it actually opened in cinemas. To explain this strategy, Yue Yang said: “It was the marketing team from Maxtimes Culture and distribution team from Tianjin Lianrui Pictures that came up with this idea together. It was approved by various investors coordinated by Star Overseas and Stephen Chow.” Cai Yuan, President of Tianjin Lianrui Pictures, recalled: “Relying on the Stephen Chow brand effect, the superb quality of ‘The Mermaid’ as a film targeting the whole family, and the special release time, we believed that this was the best strategy, using accumulated expectations to dominate the film market during the Spring Festival.”

In fact, the high quality of The Mermaid has been confirmed by the current word-of-mouth buzz among audiences and comprehensive ratings on many major portals. It was a risk worth taking.

Stephen Chow was highly cooperative during the promotion of the film, travelling to 20 cities for roadshows, and even going so far as to don a mermaid costume. Wherever he went, be it to a square or a cinema, he was surrounded by huge crowds. Cai Yuan disclosed that talking Stephen Chow into participating the roadshows to 20 cities met with nearly zero obstacles. “We did not need to persuade him, because he was really glad to have an opportunity to discover young people’s perspective nowadays and return their support over the years at the frontline.”

Yue Yang also found Chow to be agreeable. He said: “He was unexpectedly cooperative in formulating the marketing strategy, in the production and distribution of materials, and in all kinds of press conferences and road shows. It was sometimes difficult to see him working so hard at every press conference and roadshow. However, he knew that since he needed the audiences’ support at the box office, he ought to return the favor by showing up at these events. So, he insisted on coming along as much as possible. Sometimes persuasion did work on him. When we tried to explain to him why we did this or that, he would understand immediately and work with our plans and strategies.”

The overall strategy for the publicity and distribution of The Mermaid was a consequence of brainstorming. Yang Wei from Hehe (Shanghai) Pictures said: “The staff of Star Overseas were totally devoted to this project. Mr. Chow himself worked at the frontline and had the final say.” Yue Yang added: “Before the release, we traveled to film markets and squares in different places and insisted on no premieres in advance; after the release, we travelled from cinema to cinema and held fan meetings. All of these efforts were for the overall marketing strategy, which meant lowering expectations but increasing the impulse to watch the movie before release and making this movie into a hot topic using good word-of-mouth. Our director sacrificed a lot, but as we said previously, he just wanted to pay his fans back for their support. He insisted on going to roadshows no matter how exhausted he was. ”

(Source: Sina Entertainment, abridged articles)

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