Chinese film marketing company Hesong Media took a major gamble when it paid RMB 15 million (USD 2.5 million) to acquire the mainland Chinese theatrical distribution rights to the children’s cartoon Stand By Me Doraemon (哆啦A梦：伴我同行). The 2014 Japanese feature film had already been heavily pirated in the mainland, and worse, China’s film authorities had been banning theatrical releases of Japanese movies for the past three years. While American animated films were performing well at mainland theaters—Big Hero 6 had recently taken $84 million in box office receipts—the last Japanese animated feature to play there, Ultraman 3, had earned barely $3 million in 2012.
But when the Chinese film authorities lifted their ban on Japanese films, Hesong saw an opportunity and seized it. According to Beijing-based producer Long Wan of Lightsource Asia Media Group, the company paid $2.5 million for the film rights and put an additional $2.5 million into a marketing budget.
Normally in China, a film needs to gross roughly three times its marketing and acquisition costs in order to break even, after accounting for ticket taxes, the theater owners’ cut, distribution costs and other expenses. So it might have seemed a foolhardy bet for Hesong to count on Doraemon to gross $15 million in a market where no other non-Hollywood foreign animated film had ever come close to that total.
Hesong knew that the Doraemon franchise was well-loved in China, both by young children who had seen the comic books and films outside of theaters, and also by their parents who had grown up with the cartoons. Hesong proceeded with the confidence that if they marketed the film properly, the family audience would show up. They mounted a co-branding and sponsorship campaign that fully defrayed their marketing outlay, bringing in $20 million in sponsorship revenue to the company.
Other marketing tactics included numerous events at children’s centers, where kids could interact with the movie’s characters; an online promotion to more than 500 journalists on WeChat (China’s Twitter); prominent placement of ads on the heavily visited front page of the Taobao e-commerce site; and ubiquitous social media and outdoor advertising. The movie’s trailer had a touching message about friendship and loyalty, one that evoked a sentimental and nostalgic response among parents.
With an auspicious late May release date, when the cartoon provided parents with a counter-programming option to the Hollywood action spectacles that were then flooding China’s theaters, the film opened far more successfully than even Hesong must have imagined. It took in a staggering $38 million in its opening weekend, beating out four other foreign films to take the number one spot at the box office. After three weeks it had amassed a cumulative Chinese box office total of $86 million, enough to pass Disney’s Big Hero Six and place Stand By Me Doraemon as the second-highest grossing animated feature in Chinese history after Kung Fu Panda 2.
Hesong will ultimately collect some $30 million for its efforts, making Doraemon one of this year’s most profitable films releases.