Monkey King Uses Crowdfunding and Online Marketing to Set Records for Chinese Animation
Monkey King: Hero is Back (西游记之大圣归来) is a record-setting 3D animated film (loosely adapted from the Chinese epic, A Journey to the West).
After opening on July 10, 2015, Monkey King: Hero is Back has been killing at the Chinese box office - estimated US$95 million as of July 26th, 2015. Even with stiff competition for screens from Monster Hunt (the live action/CGI fantasy that opened on July 16th, 2015 and rapidly became the highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time), Monkey King is now the all-time animation box office champion in China - surpassing Kung Fu Panda 2.
Success has many authors. And an entertaining well-made film at the right time counts for a lot. But there are a few wrinkles to the success of the Monkey King that New World filmmakers - and any Western filmmaker interested in doing business in China - might want to review.
First, it should be noted that Monkey King's numbers (and Monster Hunt's record numbers) are being racked up during China's unofficial “protection month” - an almost two month summertime period (legal under the WTO's cultural exception?) when non-Chinese films are excluded from opening on domestic screens.
Then there is the maturing of the Chinese film production and distribution infrastructure. China's film business is growing in ways that the US entertainment media has so far proven mostly incapable of covering. For example, the producers of Monkey King: Hero is Back include Beijing Weiyingshidai, Hengdian Chinese Film, October Animation and the Shandong Film and Television Production Center. And Monster Hunt was produced by 安樂影片有限公司 (Edko Films). Recognize those names from Variety or the Hollywood Reporter? Could that be because much of the US attention on Chinese film production has been narrowly focussed on legacy Hollywood-types partnering with Chinese money and workers? For example, when Western outlets (like the NY Times) write about Chinese film business developments, they typically spotlight companies like Oriental DreamWorks - a firm with a Western pedigree, even if partly owned by a Chinese government investment fund and a Chinese private equity firm, China Media Capital. Yes, the Chinese wing of Dreamworks is readying Kung Fu Panda 3 for release in 2016. But, besides Rob Cain's insightful items that are now appearing in Forbes and the great work by Asia Bureau Chief Patrick Frater in Variety, where is the discerning English-language reporting on newly powerful Chinese film production companies like Beijing Enlight, which is readying a sequel to their blockbuster Lost in Thailand (will Chinese audiences throng to Lost in Hong Kong?) and Huayi Brothers currently posting Search Tactic of the Light, adapted from a popular Chinese online novel?
In analyzing the Monkey King and Monster Hunt's successes, there's also the growing importance of family-friendly films in China (this summer, no fewer than 18 animated Chinese films have been scheduled to hit theatrical screens). Is this shift in genre getting the attention it deserves from Western experts?
Yet another interesting (to me) aspect of the Monkey King's remarkable box office build is the role that crowdfunding has played.
Here's how the PRC's official news outlet Xinhua described the Monkey King's crowdfunding campaign:
"Those who contributed 100,000 yuan (US$16,000) through internet finance were able to see their children's names shown on screen when the film ended. The move not only helped fund the film, which took 8 years to make, but also worked as good advertising, according to [producer Lu Wei], founder of Beijing-based Skyfilm Capital."
And there's yet another innovation that makes the Monkey King's marketing unique: The film's reliance on social media. As reported by Xinhua on July 24th, 2015: "Online advertising featuring celebrity endorsements from names like Jack Ma, founder and chairman of China's e-commerce giant Alibaba, and Huang Xiaoming, a famed actor... made it easier for the film to reach audiences. Fans of the Monkey King also shared reviews and posters of the film on Wechat, a mobile messaging app, which has about 500 million users."
Producer Lu Wei told Xinhua "In traditional marketing, most advertising is done on paper, in the streets and theaters. This is part of the reason most Chinese animated films find it hard to reach the 100 million yuan (US$16 million) box office benchmark, according to Lu. One recent animation, Dragon Nest: Warriors' Dawn, received great reviews from the audience, but only earned about 55 million yuan (US$8.85 million)."