Will Smith appears live in Beijing on a giant movie screen, talking with… (Sony )
BEIJING — Will Smith appeared live in Beijing last week, talking via Skype, on a giant movie screen, with Chinese moviegoers who had just watched him star in "Men in Black 3."
The virtual appearance of one of Hollywood's highest-paid actors — the first of its kind in the Chinese market — was arranged by "MIB 3" studio Sony and the website Mtime, and is the latest evidence ofChina's growing importance as the movie industry's biggest overseas market.
Last month, director James Cameron showed up in person at the opening of the Beijing International Film Festival, a strong plug for the 3-D release of "Titanic."
It seems to be working. Cameron's reboot was the biggest opening of all time in China when it debuted there in April. The "MIB 3" launch drove a $19.5-million opening weekend — the seventh largest of all time in China — a bigger debut there than for the current worldwide smash "The Avengers."
The Hollywood studios began ratcheting up their marketing after the Beijing government announced in February that 14 additional U.S.-made 3-D and Imax films would be allowed into the restricted Chinese marketplace each year, and that their studios would be allowed to take home 25% of the gross, up from the previous average of 15.5%.
There's a lot at stake. In the first quarter of 2012, China surpassed Japan in box-office receipts to become the largest overseas market for American movies. The total theater take in China for 2011 was $2.1 billion, up 30% from 2010, largely as a result of 2,600 new cinema screens and the popularity of 3-D and Imax films, for which moviegoers pay higher ticket prices.
With an estimated 900 new screens projected to open in China in 2012, it has been suggested that China's box-office total could equal the $10-billion annual figure in the U.S. and Canada combined by 2020.
The bigger take has meant stronger competition.
"Because of the flood of movies into China, studios now have to deliver something new each time to differentiate their films and reach a target audience," said Kelvin Hou, chief executive of Mtime.com Inc., which is based in Beijing. By Friday night, Hou said, MTime had recorded 1.8 million views of Smith's Skype chat with the Chinese audience.
To the fans' delight, Smith employed a little Mandarin, calling out, "Good evening, everyone!" to the packed theater.
In English, he added, "I was dying to be there in China, but with the studio's [simultaneous] releases, as soon as I finish up here, I'm leaving for our New York premiere."
"MIB 3" opened on 6,073 screens nationwide. Unlike 20th Century Fox's success with the 3-D release of "Titanic" — which had 14 years of word-of-mouth promotion as one of the most popular films ever played in China — Sony faced a marketing challenge. Censors rejected the first "Men in Black" in 1997. The studio, which never even submitted the 2002 sequel, had just 50 days to position "MIB 3" after censors approved its distribution.
"Science fiction wasn't accepted back then, and the audience wasn't familiar with hero films. But China has changed a lot," said Li Chow, head of Sony distribution in China since 1996.
In 2009, Chow arranged an Mtime red carpet premiere for "This Is It,"the Michael Jackson documentary, also from Sony. Webcast footage of Chinese Jackson impersonators went viral to fan clubs across the Internet. The nation's first-ever theatrical documentary release grossed $14.8 million on its opening weekend.
In addition to working with Mtime's core cinephile audience, the Hollywood studios also try to connect with China's 600 million Internet users via more general sites. In a market where censors control what gets shown, pent-up demand for entertainment helps generate movie buzz on instant messaging giant Tencent, leading search engine Baidu, online video portal Youku-Tudou, and dozens of Twitter-like services.
Although monopoly film importer China Film Group is usually responsible for promoting the Hollywood films, whose distribution it also largely controls, industry insiders are quick to say that the state-run company's scant experience with actual competition means it has never demonstrated basic marketing skills or a willingness to spend real marketing money.
As China's release calendar has become crowded with four or five films each weekend — in years past, one was typical — studios are scrambling to augment the promotion of their films.
"Now, every opening weekend in China, there will be box-office winners and losers, whereas just a few years ago you never had to think about marketing," said Senn Moses, head of Asia operations for leading Hollywood marketing company Cimarron.
In addition to online marketing, the studios reach Chinese commuters in the biggest urban markets with outdoor advertising — spending for which rose 40% in 2011, according to research firm EntGroup Inc.