When Venom was first released in the US in early October, it ran into serious headwinds. In addition to lacklustre reviews from most of the critics, fans of Lady Gaga waged war on the superhero film (based on a character from Marvel Comics).
You might wonder what the Spider-Man spin-off had done to offend her fans? Simple: Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born opened on the same day, so her supporters took it upon themselves to boost their idol’s acting debut by sabotaging Venom with negative reviews.
Venom took a solid if unspectacular $211 million at the US box office. But sales in China have been much stronger than anticipated, contributing over a quarter of the worldwide takings, and enough to now class the film, which cost $100 million to make, as a major commercial success.
Since its debut in China in mid-November, the Marvel spin-off has amassed at least Rmb1.6 billion ($250 million) in ticket sales, trailing only Avengers: Infinity War, which made $360 million.
China’s cinema industry surpassed its American peer in total revenue for the first time ever in the first quarter of 2018 and many of the biggest-budget US blockbusters are opening to larger audiences in China than in their home country.
For the Hollywood studios, the positive reception for a film like Venom is another example of how ticket sales in China can make up for more disappointing performance at home (or, indeed, transform a franchise into a global blockbuster).
Venom’s plot follows an investigative journalist called Eddie Brock (played by Tom Hardy), who discovers that a scientist is doing research with symbiotes (a fictional organism that merge with people to create superhuman hybrids). Brock finds his own body invaded by one of these creatures and has to battle to use his new powers for good.
Sony must also thank Tencent for some of the film’s success in China. Tencent Pictures, the movie production arm of the internet giant, is one of the biggest investors in the movie, with a 25% equity stake. And in the weeks leading up to Venom’s local release, Tencent rolled out an aggressive digital marketing campaign across its vast ecosystem to generate buzz. To court female moviegoers, the studio also got the biggest girl band of the moment, Rocket Girls (see WiC416), to sing the Chinese theme song for the film.
“We have paid attention to the marketing process every step of the way, from the trailer to press releases to social media. Using Big Data, we have also been monitoring how consumers are responding to the material and updating the campaign according to their preference,” a Tencent insider told The Founder.
Rather than relying on the pre-existing promotional material from the US, Tencent also made Sony redesign the marketing programme specifically for the China market.
“In the US, we mainly rely on Twitter and Facebook to generate buzz on social media. But in China, there’s Sina Weibo, WeChat and various internet forums and they all operate very differently. So the only way is to hire new graphic designers and editors to make new promotional material for the film,” a studio employee told Entertainment Unicorn, a film blog.
Indeed, social media was crucial in generating momentum for the movie, with many fans putting together their own trailers to promote it.
Abacus News, which reports on China’s tech scene, highlighted one example that has been viewed millions of times: a comedy meme depicting Venom as a socialist hero who just wants everyone to behave nicely. This is something of an in-joke: in the past other Marvel films have been censored for too much sex and violence.
The timing of the film’s release was also providential. Prior to Venom hitting the screen, China was experiencing a box office lull. There hadn’t been a blockbuster since the National Day holiday in October. Recent import like The Nutcracker and the Four Realms and The House with a Clock in the Walls hadn’t appealed to moviegoers either. “Audiences started to crave Hollywood popcorn movies again,” reckoned Entertainment Unicorn, referring to the action blockbuster category.
That said, it’s not only Venom that has performed surprisingly well. Last week, A Cool Fish was another surprise hit, becoming the most talked about local film. The quirky indie movie, which puts a group of seemingly random characters on a collision course, collected Rmb100 million in it first five days, surprising industry observers. The number of screens allocated to the film was immediately lifted from just 13% of the total to almost 23% by end of its first week.
One reason is the strong word of mouth. Although its cast is short of starpower, the film has scored strongly with audiences, rating 8.3 out of 10 on Douban. It is being compared with comedy-drama Dying to Survive, the best performing film in the country so far this year (see WiC417). Even rival filmmaker Feng Xiaogang has been singing its praises, writing on his weibo: “The screenplay, the directing and acting are all outstanding. It shows the warmth of humanity in times of predicament. It’s exactly what people need today.”
Cinemagoers agree. “The director is too mean. First he makes you laugh and then he makes you cry. Just when you thought this is a comedy film, suddenly it reveals the pain behind all the characters. All the actors are so outstanding. Even though the ending is slightly flawed, it is still one of the most special films this year,” one wrote.
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