Hollywood meets China
Updated: 2013-10-24 07:35
By Liu Wei (China Daily)
Celebrities meet and greet fans on the red carpet, appear at press conferences amidst thunder and lightning, and make special efforts to show up at important openings in China. Liu Wei looks at Hollywood's star power at work to win the world's largest audience.
He wanted people to kneel before him and shout his name, but the villain was thwarted by The Hulk and slammed onto the ground. For Tom Hiddleston, though, the people were screaming his name without any prompting, unlike his screen villain Loki.
Hiddleston was in Beijing on Oct 11 to promote Thor 2, in which he reprises the role of Loki.
The English actor was surprised by 500 Chinese fans waiting for him outside the press conference, all chanting his name. They had also given him a rousing welcome at the airport the night before.
Hugh Jackman's presence at The Wolverine promotion in Beijing attracts about 1,500 enthusiastic fans. The outdoor red carpet like this is the first for a Hollywood star in China. Jiang Dong / China Daily
The opening ceremony for a studio complex draws A-listers including Nicole Kidman and Leonardo DiCaprio to Qingdao. Photos provided to China Daily
Tom Hiddleston poses with a scepter at the press conference for the release of Thor 2 in Beijing. Jiang Dong / China Daily
The 32-year-old Hiddleston has a strong fan base in China, both for his villainous role in The Avengers as well as his portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.
"I don't remember being so popular since I graduated from theater school," he jokes in an interview.
Hiddleston was not the only Hollywood star surprised by the passion of fans in China.
A few days after Hiddleston's tour, Hugh Jackman walked the red carpet outside a Beijing theater, here to promote The Wolverine, released on Oct 17.
About 1,500 fans lined the sides of the 95-meter carpet and Jackman spent 40 minutes signing and greeting before he arrived at the end, where another surprise awaited him.
His fans had brought him a cake to celebrate his birthday a few days before, because they knew he was on the road and might have spent his birthday on a plane.
"More and more A-listers will come to China to promote their films, as they become aware of the market's importance," says Jo Yan, senior vice-president of studio distribution for Greater China at The Walt Disney Company (Shanghai) Limited.
China's annual box office takings reached 17 billion yuan ($2.7 billion) in 2012, increasing more than 30 percent over the last year. It is the largest overseas market for many Hollywood films, such as Avatar and Kung Fu Panda 2. Some films, such as Pacific Rim, grossed more in China than in North America.
Nearly a month before Hiddleston and Jackman came to China, Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman were in Qingdao, the port city in East China's Shandong province. They were there to add luster to a ceremony announcing the launch of a studio complex by Chinese real estate giant Wanda Group.
"It was not even a film promotion, it was just an event," Yan says. "But the fact that Wanda owns the biggest theater chain in China and had bought AMC theaters is enough reason for the stars to consider supporting the event.
"We used to have to persuade the stars, but now they are more willing to come themselves. The change has been very obvious since last year," says a Chinese staff member of one of the big six Hollywood studios.
But in China, it is never easy to campaign with Hollywood star power, even when stars are willing. The biggest difficulty is the uncertainty regarding release dates.
China imports 34 foreign films a year for theatrical release, but even the powerful Hollywood studios have no distribution rights in the country.
The State-owned China Film Group has the monopoly in deciding when to release imported films and it shares distribution rights with another local company, Huaxia Films.
"We often get very short notice of when we can release our films, and CFG would suggest we hold the events in venues they own," says the anonymous staff member. "It is not an enforcement, but often the studios would follow the advice just to maintain goodwill with CFG."
Universal's Fast and Furious 6, for example, was scheduled for mid-June. The studio's mainland partner Edko had collected interview requests in early June for the cast, including Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. Both actors had planned to come to China.
But the film was put off again and again until July 26, two months after its North America premiere. By then, the actors had moved on to new projects and their trips were canceled.
While studios could plan a star-studded event months in advance in many other countries, they are used to changes all the time in China.
"We have to move fairly quickly if we plan a campaign in China," says Sunder N. Kimatrai, senior vice-president of 20th Century Fox International in Asia Pacific.
"Movie stars are busy, they cannot appear in two places at the same time. But even so, China is absolutely our top priority in Asia now, no doubt about that."
As more Hollywood stars come into China for promotions, the competition for publicity is pushed up a notch.
"We need more innovative marketing stunts," Yan says. "The mere presence of the stars is not enough."
So, at the press conference for Thor 2, Disney tried to underline the bond between the star and his role. As the host was introducing Hiddleston, all the lights blacked out suddenly. Just as everyone thought it must have been a power failure, Hiddleston appeared, a spotlight behind him and flashes of lightning lit up the room.
Hiddleston was also given a scepter with his name carved in Chinese, and he obligingly swung it around as the cameras went wild at this unique photo opportunity.
"It will require more originality to catch attention from audience as they get used to more and more stars," says Yan.
Jackman's outdoor red carpet, the first for a Hollywood star in China, created quite a stir. Although it is de rigueur in Hollywood, it takes more initiative and ambition for organizers in China.
"We were worried about a lot of things - the weather, security and so on. And then we were worried that not enough fans would turn up," says Min Zhang, one of the event's organizers.
"But we were wrong. Some fans had waited from noon until the event, which began at 7 pm.
"It is becoming more difficult to impress fans and media. We have to try something different, something nobody has done before."
There is one more problem facing publicists that may be uniquely Chinese.
Not all Chinese fans adore the same Hollywood celebrities, says film critic Bi Chenggong, veteran researcher of the American film industry and Chinese subtitler for Hollywood films like Warhorse and Monster University.
"China is big," he says. "In second- and third-tier cities and the many, many smaller towns, the definition of A-listers is different from that in Beijing and Shanghai. For some of them, the top draws are Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
"That's something the studios must consider as they develop different strategies to cater for Chinese audiences."
Contact the writer at email@example.com.
(China Daily 10/24/2013 page22)