Watching Iron Man 3 in Beijing and How Too Much Success in China May not be a Good Thing for Disney/Marvel

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Last Friday I went to see Iron Man 3 here in Beijing (don’t worry, there are no spoilers in this post!). The movie has been heavily promoted here in China, and posters for the movie, as well as advertisements using Iron Man to sell all sorts of products (from TCL phones to Yili’s chocolate milk), are plastered all over Beijing. I am not going to offer a personal review of the movie here (it has a 77% in rotten tomatoes, an A in CinemascoreManohla Dargis from the NYTimes REALLY didn’t like it, and if its box office success is any indication, $680 million dollars and counting, you probably have already seen it), but, instead, I will talk about some cultural issues related to the marketing approach taken by Disney/Marvel in order to ensure the financial success of the movie in China. And how too much success may not be a good thing for Disney…

Let’s start with some economic and political factors. Disney/Marvel is promoting the movie here as a Chinese co-production of sorts (although it is not technically a co-production, but a joint venture with DMG, a Chinese movie production company). This is smart for a couple of important reasons. First, China only allows 34 foreign movies annually to be released in the Chinese market, so having a Chinese partner ensures any particular co-production (or joint venture) a better chance of making the cut. Second, the Chinese market has become the second biggest in the world, with an annual box-office of $2.7 bn in 2012 (vs. $10.9 bn in the U.S.), so if Hollywood needs to share some of the revenue with a local partner in order to get a piece of the Chinese cake, so be it.

But Disney/Marvel has gone beyond the mere business side of the equation in order to ensure the success of the movie in China. Robert Downey Jr. came to Beijing to promote the movie and flattered the Chinese audience with tales of how he loves Traditional Chinese Medicine, and how he is an avid practitioner of Chinese Martial Arts. He even said, “I’m interested in all things Chinese and I live a very Chinese life in America.” Now, how is that for flattering (pandering to!) his local audience… To be fair, Disney is not the first studio to do this, and as you can read in the Guardian, movie studios are working hard to please Chinese audiences: “Lionsgate spent $1m digitally substituting Red Dawn’s villainous Chinese baddies with North Korean ones; this summer’s Brad Pitt-starring zombie epic World War Z has already excised a fleeting suggestion that the outbreak emanated from within the country’s walls [… and] last year’s sci-fi hit Looper relocated an entire act from Paris to Shanghai.” Disney/Marvel has been, simply, the most successful in its strategy to crack the Chinese market.

Robert Downey Jr. in Beijing. Courtesy of www.hollywoodreporter.com

As part of their marketing strategy, Disney/Marvel has also released in China an exclusive cut of Iron Man 3 that includes close to 5 minutes of scenes filmed in China by renowned Chinese actors, Fan Bing Bing and Wang Xueqi, that are not going to be seen anywhere else in the world. If the incredible success of Iron Man 3 in China, where it is shattering records, is any indication, Disney/Marvel’s marketing strategy seems to be working. But if you get past the millions of dollars, and all of the noise surrounding the movie (it must be because of all of the explosions!), you can also see how there are some interesting dissenting local voices to which Hollywood studios should pay attention, if they want to remain successful in China. As some news outlets  and some local bloggers have already reported, the added footage not only doesn’t add anything to the plot of the movie, it simply uses local star power to pander to the local Chinese  public. The two scenes filmed in China are, basically, used for obvious, and even ridiculous, product placement.  I can also testify that in the movie theater where I went to see the movie, people simply laughed at the scene where Wang Xueqi, who plays a Chinese doctor, is drinking Yili Chocolate milk before meeting Tony Stark at the end of the movie. Why I understand the reasons behind movie studios trying to reach an increasingly savvy worldwide audience (you can read an interesting article in NYTimes on the challenges faced by Paramount in promoting the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness to reach a wider audience), I think there must be better ways to do it. In the case of China, Hollywood cannot promise them an important role in the movie (as a location, as part of the plot) and then just add a couple of scenes that are pointless and that simply serve to pitch a TCL phone and chocolate milk, among other products. It is also a double edged sword for the Chinese movie starts in the movie, since it definitely gives them worldwide exposure… at the cost of being in meaningless roles. I hope Fan Bing Bing has a more significant presence in the upcoming X-Men Future of Days Past

I’ll just end with a word of caution. Nothing is more dangerous in China for a foreign company than success. You can ask Google, and more recently Apple, of the many dangers of being successful in China. Recently, movie studios have also experienced those same challenges. Two examples: Tarantino’s Django Unchained was recently pulled from movie screens AFTER it had been reviewed by the censorship board, and the Chinese government recently changed its tax policy for foreign movie studios AFTER an agreement, brokered by Joe Biden himself, had recently been reached.

So watch out Tony Stark… enjoy your recent victory over evil… because not even the Avengers may help you defeat the intricacies of the Chinese political landscape if you keep being so successful…

Manu

P.S. I just saw this very interesting article in the Washington Post that touches on similar issues related to the release of Iron Man 3 in China.

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