The Art of Promoting Art Movies
-An Exclusive Interview with Bao Xiaogeng, Chief Producer of Lantern Film and Wang Jie, Director of Promotion and Coordination

A Tibet-themed film Paths of the Soul led a surprising counterattack at the Chinese box office relied on its increasing word-of-mouth referrals from only 1.6% screenings on the premiere day on June 20 to the box office revenue totaled RMB 100 million, blazed a new path for Chinese art films. How does it win the favor of audiences by overcoming low number of screenings? What unique campaigns are launched to promote this film? The Chinese Film Market (CFM) hereby interviews Bao Xiaogeng, Chief Producer of Lantern Film and Wang Jie, Director of Promotion and Coordination of Paths of the Soul.

CFM: Paths of the Soul was released two years later after its production. What do you value the most when invested these two films? How did the Lantern Film join this film?
Bao: We joined Paths of the Soul very late as the last producer. Before the last Spring Festival, when Mr. Li Li, President of Heli Chenguang (the first producer) and Mr. Lu Wei, CEO of Castle in the Sky Film met together in a party and talked about Director Zhang Yang who spent over one year to shoot two films in Tibet, which attracted the interests of Mr. Lu. Frankly, we were surprised after watched the demo. We had a great esteem for the crew either standing from the point of a creator or a film maker. We may lack such opportunities to produce such film. Or, even with such opportunities, we have no courage or creativity/execution skills to produce a film at such level.
Apart from the ideology revealed in the films, one of our criteria is to select a work, rather than just a film, including the picturization of all audio and visual languages. Both of these two films are typical film works with a high degree of completion. Each part is highly completed, such as picture, playwright, directing, editing, music and sound effect. In particular, these films were produced in an extreme environment with a budget of RMB 30 million, which are hardly achieved by ordinary production teams. In terms of the investment layout, we’re delighted to see that investors would like to support artists to do such things. It’s our great pleasure to be part of the team.
CFM: What works did the Lantern Film participate in?
Bao: The Lantern Film is an art film production company affiliated to the Castle in the Sky Film. Apart from the production, the Lantern Film is responsible for film promotion.
CFM: When the film was screened, Paths of the Soul became a surprise blockbuster at the Chinese box office driving by good word-of-mouth. What marketing campaigns are launched to respond to highly positive word-of-mouth in the market?
Bao: For us, the performance of these films is not an “counterattack” at all, including Monkey King: Hero is Back and CallStar produced by us previously. Someone said that you’re lucky and each film could hit the spot. However, I’m sure success is not a lucky coincidence. Film promotion has its well-planned strategy, while deciding the movie theater schedule is one of important promotional strategies. Actually, our team did a complete pre-stage market survey. Based on our survey results, we decided the basic strategy and market positioning for this film’s promotion, including the rhythm and steps of film promotion, how to draw the curve and guide word-of-mouth referrals. The cinema line are rational but their decisions are based on data. The cinema line will of course offer a helping hand if the distributor has a good market guide at the pre-stage.
At that time, many films selected to avoid from competing with Transformers 5. However, if no one goes to the cinema and the whole market goes down, we couldn’t drive audiences to the cinema. Conversely, if the movie market is booming, there are always some audiences who want to see a superman to save the earth, while others prefer to watch how ordinary people save themselves. So, we decide Paths of the Soul to be screened with Transformers 5 at the same time. When the overall market is optimistic, we actually have more market space to operate. For a normal commercial film, the premiere date will normally fall on a weekend, aiming to last an explosive period up to two weeks. If the word-of-mouth goes to be negative, the subsequent box office would be dropped. However, this was not the case for this film. We were very confident of it. So, we premiered on Tuesday and then had a three-day buffer period. If the curve wouldn’t drop on Friday, the attendance would be higher.
Wang Jie: Why we select Paths of the Soul and Monkey King: Hero is Back is because their high quality. At least, they have something to touch us. This is our first criterion for selecting films. A good film could touch us and also work for others. Actually, I don’t think these films are “counter-attackers” at all. The attendance was very high on the premiere day and the film gained some popularity in the market. In addition, the first batch of audiences really loved this film. I think this is very important. If no real fans go to the cinema to support the film on the first or second day of the premiere, then a good film would be buried in the market. These audiences are our real driving forces. The first wave of audiences are our true audience group. In our promotion, we won’t particularly guide the word-of-mouth. Instead, we would show audiences some excellent qualities of this film. In the film promotion, audiences would normally misunderstand the promoted film from media information. So, they would feel large discrepancies when watching the film. Some films fail to demonstrate their highlights and quality at the pre-stage promotion. Otherwise, a good film would be missed out. What we do is to do the right thing. The film firstly touches us and then we pass on what touches us to audiences in the promotion process.

CFM: Paths of the Soul extensively explored audience groups, targeted at literary young people, outdoor sports lovers, venture investors, and financial professionals. You held roadshows in eight cities. What’re your major thoughts on such promotional activities? Do you have any mature experience to share with us?
Wang Jie: Many people haven’t been to Tibet. So, we only target at certain groups rather than promoting among a wide range of people. There are a large group of audiences who love Tibet, have been to Tibet and familiarize with Tibetan religion and belief. Many of them are the middle class and intellectuals. They love reading and traveling, seek high quality of life and care about their spiritual health. We could lock such group through certain channels.
Before the screening, we invited a wave of such audiences to watch the movie and share their reviews, such as startup entrepreneurs. We have some friends who produced their own films and built their businesses. This film resonated with something in their mind. Before testing, we targeted at certain groups of audiences that the film could meet their taste. We organized them to watch the movie in advance. Actually, the word-of-mouth is hardly guided and the guided word-of-mouth may not spark a boom in the market. What we could do is to let audiences explore the film by themselves.
CFM: Paths of the Soul follows the “audience fragmentation + crowd-sourcing” marketing strategy adopted by Monkey King: Hero is Back and Himalaya: Ladder to Paradise. What advantages does such model have compared to traditional marketing approaches?
Wang Jie: For these films, we adopt the crowd-sourcing model, inviting the targeted groups to participate in film promotion, although the audience size is different. However, crowd-sourcing could effectively find the first batch of seed audiences for these films. Paths of the Soul, Himalaya: Ladder to Paradise and Monkey King: Hero is Back, all were unpopular films in the market before the screening. However, crowd-sourcing audiences don’t judge a film based on film industry data and experience. Instead, they would like to fund the film just because they like it. This is a new way to promote some high-quality films.
In my opinion, we haven’t a fixed promotional model for crowd-sourcing. Each film has its own audience group and size. We need to design different strategies in line with the needs of each film.
Bao: It is also subject to works. As what Wang Jie said, we will do a lot of tests in advance. Different from those elites growing from the film circle, we’re from brand building and promotion background. So, for us, no matter whether they are art or commercial films, we firstly need to consider who is your audiences. You need to find audiences for your works and also help audiences to find suitable films. The KOL (Key Opinion Leader) is fixed in line with the targeted segment market based on the pre-stage market survey, formulated strategy and through crowd-sourcing and other methods. The KOLs could be bound extensively with the film promotion, enabling them to give their true opinions. This is also an effective promotional measure.
CFM: Are there any marketing differences between art films and commercial films?
Bao: Like restaurants, we have McDonald’s and private home cuisine in the film market. McDonald’s is like commercial films that we called, while private home cuisine is art films. However, for these two genres, neither is superior to the other, while they have different pain points. McDonald’s is a kind of fast food to feed audience, without asking audiences to take time in eating, such as chewing 30 times per second. Audiences also have no high expectation. However, dining private home cuisines is different. You expect delicate tastes and more extensive satisfaction. This is also true for movies. For example, you need some sensory stimulation when you’re bored or reduce your stress when you’re overwhelmed. Commercial films could satisfy audience’s sensory needs. For art films, you have some needs at a deeper level, such as finding more experience, more answers and reflecting spiritual and emotional needs at a deeper level. So, our marketing campaigns have no essential differences, but subject to the characteristics of the film work itself. Each work has different pain points and thus we adopt different solutions accordingly.
CFM: What are your comments on the survival environment of art films in Chinese film market?
Bao: Actually, animation films produced by us originate from the genre of commercial films. Apart from sentiment, we adhere to making art films because we see this market keeps growing. Although we are optimistic about Paths of the Soul different from the market expectation, we’re surprised to see the final box office exceeding RMB 100 million, at least several RMB 10 million received at the end.
Audiences of art film market are upgrading, generating a great deal of needs. The cinema line have rational judgment, including Twenty Two and Sky Ladder by Cai Guoqiang. First, the market space becomes larger and larger. Second, more and more people like us explore this market, even including sharing audience flow with offline cultural and art platforms (e.g. bookstores and concert halls). When we talk about art film market, watching art films is not only just watching the film from a screen, but also an interesting consumption behavior. Actually, we always have some cross-sectoral practices. Someone asks us what our secret is for making genre films. Actually, we view films as an IP. We don’t just produce films. For example, Wang Jie organized two art exhibitions.
Wang Jie: Yes. At Shanghai International Film Festival, to promote Paths of the Soul, we held an exhibition at the New world of Shanghai, displayed a lot of contents about the film production. From photos to videos, audiences could know how a film is produced, living and stories behind the film, director’s ideas and insights of local people and the crew. This is a documentary-kind exhibition from a unique point of view for audiences either watched the film or not. We selected the New World of Shanghai as the venue and hoped to integrate our exhibition and film into urban life, changing audience’s mind that art is caviar to the general public.
Soul On A String held an outdoor exhibition at Sanlitun, Beijing. For audiences who have watched this film before, this exhibition is a good exhibition. The film has many implications which could be interpreted differently from different angles. At Soul On A String exhibition, we designed a “108 Gates” concept. Audiences faced several options when entering from an entrance. Each audience had his/her own choices and finally they had their own path, composing a complete poem.
Bao: Both Paths of the Soul and Soul On A String exhibitions are real art exhibitions, rather than just a film exhibition. For example, Paths of the Soul designed two entrances. Audiences watched the film could enter from the route of film documentary, while audiences not watched the film could select the artist route. When they walked to the middle section, they could see the linkage and collision of these two parts, including those unique experience. We designed a starry sky cinema and audiences could lie down to watch mountain and starry sky. This was a spiritual route, simulating the walking journey. Audiences could watch how the film was shot and how the crew produced the film, or experience the spiritual journey of pilgrims.
Soul On A String is a film about stream of consciousness, involving complex timing spaces. There is no absolute right or wrong answers. “Soul on a String” refers to 108 knots on the beads. Inspired from these 108 knots, we designed 108 gates. However there were two spaces in the middle. One was white, while the other was black. The white space was left for artists to improvise, while the black space was a divine space, where a witch-like person would raise questions to audiences. We also designed other similar interaction activities, immersed audiences into our film. Screening the film enabled audiences to go into it. The promotion of art movies is like peeling an onion.
CFM: Would you please brief us your new film plans and recent progress?
Bao: We are producing the River Cantata, which is the first music documentary film aired in the cinema line in China. The independent artist Su Yang plays the leading character. Su Yang is busy with running his Yellow River Runs Forth program, which is a series of art activities integrating music with other art forms, such as theatre show, exhibition, presentation and books. We also find our folk artists along the Yellow River, including rock art of Helan Mountain, recitative prevalent in North Shaanxi Province, shadow puppet and Shaanxi opera. First, these four types of art once inspired Su Yang’s art creation. Second, these four artists have connections with Su Yang in their life. They are also independent individuals. Actually, they are the people in Su Yang’s songs.
We adopt an anthropological approach, shooting the scenery throughout the Yellow River from the source to the end flowing into the ocean. Audiences will have a chance to view different forms of the Yellow River. We lived with the crew from August 2016 to October 2017. The film ratio is big and over 1000 hours contents only are edited to a 90 min film.
So, this is what I just talked about why art films are different. This is because art film is never an independent work. Like River Cantata, the art film will be an IP in the future, including films, TV programs, Internet shows, international film editions, exhibitions, performances and books. It will exert varying influence extensively and intensively. The future extension is also different. So, this film is much-anticipated.
The River Cantata is a documentary. However, we want to make it like a feature film. So, we employ a German editor. This film is about the Yellow River and folk artists, and thus the base color is already there. We hope to view it from an exotic cultural point of view. A foreigner’s view could help us to break our stereotyping. Finally, the film will bring surprises to audiences and present a different new angle that is different from our cultural perception. We also employ an editor who is a screenwriter of Director Johnny To. We wish to present a feature film to audiences instead of just a documentary. Now, we plan to participate in some film festivals in May 2018 with River Cantata, and it may be screened in China in the fall of 2018.