In the third of our four-part series on the rise of Alibaba Pictures, we take a look at how Alibaba Group’s film and TV arm plans to attract audiences across China’s vast and varied landscape.
When Tom Cruise appeared on stage with Alibaba Group Executive Chairman Jack Ma in Shanghai last September, the resulting photo lit up entertainment and business wires around the world. That’s no surprise—the two titans of their respective industries are virtual publicity machines. Everything they do generates thousands of clicks.
Cruise and Ma were on hand to promote the China premiere of Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation, the fifth film in Cruise’s superspy franchise. But the moment also represented a global unveiling of the ambitions of Alibaba Pictures, showcasing the company’s first major promotion and distribution deal—a one-time partnership signed last June with Paramount Pictures, the film’s U.S. producer.
Stick with us, Hollywood, Ma’s presence seemed to say, if you want to crack the second-largest movie market in the world.
Partnering is a smart way to go if you’re a foreign producer eyeing the mainland. For all the astounding growth in China box office revenue ($6.78 billion in 2015, up 48.7% over 2014), reaching Chinese audiences is still a bumpy road. One hurdle is government restrictions on the number of foreign movies that can be imported each year. Another is, all foreign movies must be reviewed and approved by the government.
Beyond that, knowing how to appeal to a widely diverse population takes an insider’s knowledge. In a country of 1.35 billion ranging from sophisticated big city cineastes to rural villagers just getting into cable, “understanding the Chinese market is really a subject of demographics and sociology,” says Alex Zhang, secretary general of the international division of Alibaba Pictures. “Broad-stroke analysis doesn’t quite work.”
Alibaba Pictures offers a unique way in. Just as it’s doing with its own productions, the company combines old-fashioned creative intuition with data analysis from its online ticketing business, Taobao Movies, and from Alibaba Group’s massive e-commerce platforms such as Taobao Marketplace and Tmall.com to inform and structure its marketing efforts.
“We leave no stones unturned,” says Zhang. “We often begin with sales and geographical data on similar movies via Taobao Movies. Then we branch outwards to retail platform sales, new media navigation, and even Alipay (Alibaba Group’s online payments service). We ask: ‘where do these same consumers live and shop, and what other types of content are they interested in?’
“It’s all in an effort to create a psychological map of their decision-making apparatus so that we can be in a better position to predict and influence.”
This data-driven process offers partners a refined approach for targeting audiences that may prove to be particularly effective in China, where up to 70 percent of all gross box-office receipts now comes from online ticket purchases through sites like Taobao Movies. In North America, only about 15 percent of movie tickets are sold online.
But there’s another advantage for outsiders working with Alibaba Pictures: Alibaba’s ecosystem of online shopping websites, entertainment websites, social media and mobile apps serve as publicity platforms along a vertical path that leads from pre-production to premiere to post-theatrical release.
Take Youku Todou, for instance, the online video site similar to Youtube that Alibaba Group is in the process of acquiring. Alibaba Pictures can build anticipation for a film during pre-production by running teasers on Youku’s front page, thus potentially reaching the site’s 500 million registered users.
Sina Weibo, the microblogging platform similar to Twitter that is minority owned by the Alibaba Group is another example. Posting behind-the-scenes weblogs during production can also stoke anticipation. Sina Weibo has 143 million active monthly users.
At the pre-release stage and during a film’s theatrical run, an online-to-offline (O2O) strategy designed specifically to stimulate ticket sales comes to life. Taobao Movies, for instance, can offer creative incentives for theater owners and exhibitors aimed at attracting young audiences. They include discounted tickets, free or bonus concessions, reserved seating, and even vouchers for taxi rides to the theater.
For Mission Impossible–Rogue Nation (MI 5), Alibaba Pictures targeted urban audiences in particular with an online campaign. In the weeks leading up to the Sept. 6 premiere, the company looked at product sales related to other spy thrillers as well as a previous Mission Impossible title, Ghost Protocol. The company also analyzed home entertainment rentals.
Zhang says their analysis led to a conclusion that MI 5 would appeal to audiences who devour action blockbusters, but the movie-going public in rural regions might wait for it to come to home video. So the company decided to appeal to a broader audience by commissioning a promo video that they hoped would make the movie feel more down-to-earth. It featured cameo appearances by Chinese stars and mimicked a viral music video on Youku Todou that the company determined was the most popular among action-adventure movie fans. The “Mission Impossible” video went viral across Youku, Weibo, and other well-known video sites such as Bilibili and AcFun.
It’s performances like that that are leading more foreign filmmakers to eye China as the new frontier for profits and puts studios like Alibaba Pictures in the driver’s seat for collaboration and growth.
“Ten years ago [in China], marketing was for distributors and ticket sales was for theaters,” says Zhang. “But with the kind of integrated ecosystems we see in Alibaba that allow cross-platform native content, you can now conflate ticket sales with marketing and really unify parties with previously conflicting interests.”
In the next part of this series, we’ll take a closer look at Alibaba Pictures’ merchandising efforts.