CHINA is the fastest-growing movie market in the world. While blockbusters still dominate the box office, specialty films such as documentaries, independent and art films are also trying to reach a wider audience.
In China, people use the term wen yi pian (literary and art films) to vaguely refer to movies that are usually produced on a small budget.
A serious film buff, Luo Xia always organizes DVD screenings in cafes. At the end of last year, he discovered the crowdfunding platform Elemeet where people can screen art movies in their cities.
On September 9, the first crowdfunded movie screening was organized at a cinema in western Hangzhou. All 154 tickets were sold out a week before.
“There were even enquiries after they were sold out,” said Luo.
The movie, “Sky Ladder,” is a documentary on Chinese fireworks artist Cai Guoqiang and his most difficult art piece “Sky Ladder.”
It was made by award-winning Scottish director Kevin Macdonald and was a collaborative project between China and the USA. These kinds of movies rarely find a theatrical release.
The platform Elemeet was established earlier this year to facilitate a limited release of specialty films enabled by online crowdfunding.
“We work on a customer-on-demand model,” said Xiao Fuqiu, the media and communications manager at Elemeet. “We offer an online movie database and get film copies in advance through our network. When someone applies for a viewing, we negotiate with the cinemas they chose.”
Till date they have worked with five major cinemas in Hangzhou.
For a screening, people who are interested in organizing a premiere should start with an online application followed by a personal statement, stating why he/she is the most suitable person for it. The platform will judge the capability of the applicant.
Suggestions and guidance are provided on how to organize a successful screening by choosing an appropriate time slot and cinema, and having enough time for promotions, etc.
Once approved, the organizer shares the link on the social media. Potential viewers can buy tickets through the platform directly. If enough tickets are not sold before the designated screening date, the tickets are refunded.
The organizers are responsible for the screening in their cities. The platform assists them with publicity stuff such as advertising copies, posters and souvenirs for audiences. Most of the marketing is done online.
They also encourage organizers to invite guests for a Q&A session after the screening. Viewers are advised to join a WeChat group, in which the platform organizes post-screening discussions and live interviews with the movie’s production team. In return, the organizer shares 10 percent of the box office of a single screening to cover the cost of marketing.
During the two-day premiere of “Sky Ladder,” 115 screenings were organized nationwide and 12,622 people went to the cinemas to watch it.
Since its inception, Elemeet has worked on eight movies and helped the filmmakers to reach the right audience with a precision marketing strategy.
“We work in two different approaches,” said Xiao. “For new movies that already have a distribution plan, we launch a campaign called ‘Premieres in 100 cities’ to gain momentum in marketing.
“There are also long-term screenings, which allow users to activate screenings for movies that are not released in cinemas or those that have already been pulled from theaters.”
“Sky Ladder” was given a wide release in cinemas on September 22 — exactly 11 days after it premiered via Elemeet. The positive reception it garnered during the limited release caught the attention of the public.
According to cobooo.cn, a website tracking box office revenues in China’s mainland, the film had collected about 1.66 million yuan (US$250,000) till now. In comparison, the highest grossing documentary in 2016 “Born in China” (dubbed by celebrities such as Zhou Xun) grossed 66.57 million yuan, about 0.15 percent of the total box office in 2016.
It is still a relatively small, underdeveloped market, industry insiders said.
The average seat occupancy rate of screenings on Elemeet is over 80 percent, which is much higher than that of regular commercial productions.
“In a city like Hangzhou, I have full confidence in organizing a 100-seat screening,” said Luo Xia. “But in third-tier cities and lower it will be more difficult, sometimes impossible.”
Last October, the National Arthouse Movies Screening Alliance was founded to put more art house films in the theaters.
On August 25, it released the Oscar-winning film, “Manchester by the Sea,” in 190 cinemas nationwide, just eight months after its release in the USA. In Hangzhou, night cinemas are listed as members of the alliance, which means audience can buy tickets directly from them.
The alliance was launched by the China Film Archive, a public institution affiliated to the country’s film watchdog, State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. It got support from major cinema chains such as Wanda, Poly, Lumière Pavilions, as well as Huaxia Film Distribution Co Ltd, one of the two film distributors that monopolize China’s film import quota system, showing an unparalleled advantage in its distribution channels.
A marketing manager of one of the film venues, who asked not to be identified, said that they supported such screenings not just for box office, but to enrich the audiences' experiences in such films. He said it was a long-term investment.