This HK Transmedia Watch follow-up post will showcase a small local student project that combines Indonesian Puppetry with transmedia elements as well as take a look at the endorsement culture and stalling strategies of local film distributors when it comes to promotion gambles that potentially maximizing the box office results.
I stumbled more less by “accident” upon this project as Facebook was targeting a sponsored post to my wall on the day of the event. Created by a group of media design students from HK Polytechnic University, this project attempts to revive the almost lost artistry of the Indonesian Puppet/Shadow Play and its vast and rich storytelling heritage by the use of digital means.
Core of Digital Wayang was a live performance of renowned puppet artist Aldy Sanjaya who came to HK with his whole set of traditional puppets to present a part of the well known Ramayana story. He was accompanied by a set of story world supporting animations projected onto the stage.
The project also includes a board game of which I was fortunate enough to receive one of the prototypes. A digital version of this game will soon be released as iPad app and brings the user deeper into the fascinating universe of Wayang. After the digital show Sanjaya gave an introduction to Indonesian culture and the history of his puppetry art.
Digital Wayang offered a mesmerizing experience of visuals, game and culture. It gave a glimpse into how traditional art can be garner to a young audience by the use of transmedia. While the limitations of the project within this academic environment were outweighing its commercial appeal, it still displayed the potential of interdisciplinary media and experiential entertainment based on traditional storytelling and local culture. It most definitely made me research on Indonesian puppet theater and think about other ways of “media-upgrading” this unique story experience.
The heavily buzzed local dance film The Way We Dance launched at HK theaters early August after being locked up for 5 months following its premiere screening in March 2013. The distributor applied the frequently used and favored strategy of withholding a local film, produced for a local audience, from the local market while running it on festivals all over the world. I’ll talk a bit more about this specific market stalling tactics later on, let me walk you through the marketing choreography of this film first.
Obviously, The Way We Dance comes off as HK’s version of Street Dance and taps into the most desirable target demographic imaginable. Street dancing is tremendously popular amongst local teens and even tweens, and presents its local story about following your dreams with up and coming music and model stars. Hence, the vitally important Millennial audience group is perfectly served. In fact, this concept is the wet dream of a HK producer and sounds like a money making machine. The Street Dance films have produced solid box office results so far. What could possibly go wrong with a localized version?
The traditional marketing machinery was quickly ramping up after screenings at Udine and Edinburgh. Appearances of cast and crew at preview screenings, radio shows, TV and a street performance of graffiti artists tied in with people holding up pre-selected cards with dream wishes for a nice Facebook photo. Social media was leveraged to its fullest. Events at HK universities and WeChat where actors talk, talk, talk, talk and talk… (not dance).
The 360-buzz worked. Word of mouth and reviews have been dazzling positive throughout. The distributor lined up a typhoon of veteran film stars and director legends like Ann Hui to endorse the project publicly (without understanding the culture behind it though). One could have the impression this project is a collective effort of the entire HK film industry, at least what is left of it anyway. The veterans praised the film with comparisons to the HK New Wave movement from the early 1980s. Wait! WHAT??? A film that is about street dancing and targeted to Millennials? Kids that consider everything older than 5 years is dusted movie history?
Clearly there is a significant disconnect between this traditional art film campaign and and the YouTube generation it is created for. It does not matter how often the audience sees the film’s cute actors talking about themselves and how amazing the production time was. A campaign simply renders ineffective once no one thought about how to get these kids involve and let them interact. After all it IS about dancing and music. Fast, vibrant, connected and energetic. This is what a campaign needs to serve to keep pace with its audience. What they got instead was a snail race and the films own audience outrun it the moment the crew started shooting in silence.
In fact, cinemas saw what was going on with the film’s marketing and gave it a limited amount of shows for it’s opening weekend. The first 4 days (including previews) cashed in a solid but not overwhelming HK$ 1.4 million. Considering the amount of buzz this borders at the realms of under-performance. But HK kids love the film, they want it to be a success. Hence, they jump in where the distributor failed. Large amounts of tickets are being bought up by fans, sold amongst their friends via WhatsApp, WeChat and Facebook. Others create Facebook events to get their peers mobilized. The effort was enormous and picked up speed quickly. Usually, a local film would drop in admissions during it’s first week in cinemas but The Way We Dance managed to keep steadily afloat, with a total box office of HK$ 3.54 after the 2nd weekend.
Just as side comparison, Dante Lam’s new film Unbeatable (admittedly a more commercial and mainstream production) just made HK$ 9.46 after 4 days (including previews). Even though it got more screens in cinemas it had a slightly less buzzed traditional campaign going, mainly based on 1 single magazine cover. While Unbeatable aims for a clearly higher demographic that is fewer in numbers, I dare to say that the core message of following your dream is equally included like in The Way We Dance.
Recently, another local release went for a similar basic marketing campaign. The horror film omnibus series Tales From The Dark. My very first encounter with Tales was at the cinema. Right in-between thundering trailers to Men of Steel and The Wolverine there was this two and a half minute something with a supposedly scary background music and a dozen of HK stars trying to convince me how horrifying and cool this flick would be. Essentially I sat through interviews disguised as trailer.
This is a very common way of promoting films. Usually the first teaser to a local production is always a 2 minute making of. Personally I find that most irritating. After all, Hollywood studios won’t show you how the Avengers look like in front of a green screen before the first teaser trailer with all the smashing effects is out there for months already.
Endorsements have become the prime objective to all marketing efforts. The actual film has become less important than the person that is endorsing it. What distributors forget is that this situation resonates very little with the Millennials demographic but rather engages a far older audience that is less willing to spend their quality time in dark rooms with small screens. Eventually the economics are simple. When distributors target the senior demographic group the box office result will be less due to the discount schemes. On top, this audience group will most likely choose weekend morning shows which brings the discount ticket price even further down.
Stalling as promotion
Let me cycle back to the notorious stalling tactics by distributors. It has become fashionable to premiere and run a HK film abroad for a period up to 1 year till it finally hits the locals screens in its own market. Usually this involves screenings at festivals while domestic press is reporting about the raving reviews and marketing stunts this film does somewhere on the other side of the globe. Ann Hui’s A Simple Life was such a case. The cultural conscious proofs this tactics right. HK audience seems to react very strongly to things that they are excluded from. Hence witnessing a local film doing its theater run in North America builds up an enormous urge to see this “forbidden” treasure once the local distributor is gracious enough to allow it to its own viewers.
Since this has proven to ensure the success of a film in HK we usually get to see all the highlights of HK cinema for the running year during the industry’s fair Filmart in March as stealth screenings or one-off events until their actual release far later down the road. Pang Ho Cheung’s Vulgaria was such a shelved title. But different to most films it gained significance in cultural meaning and momentum during the months of hiding from the screens due to political developments and trends in HK happening in spring and summer 2012.
Apparently, some local films are being shelved for several years as the distributors wait for a miracle. Obviously the main trouble does not lie within distribution but rather the fact that local films are being produced without the slightest attempt to gather the needed market and audience research up front. In fact most local films are never intended to be appreciated by a local audience and hence will never see the point of significance for a release.
What strikes me recently is the silent underground movement of the Bollywood films on HK’s screens that discloses what’s wrong with the city’s marketing thinking of maintaining the status quo instead of pivoting to innovation. Evidently there is a growing community of HK moviegoers that appreciates the extravaganza only an Indian film can offer these days. It is a rare exception that Bollywood films get picked up by local distributors or even see a wider release despite the proven recent success of films like 3 Idiots or Barfi. However, there are still day-and-date released of all the big blockbusters.
Specialized niche distributors like Cineworld, sitting somewhere inside Chungking Mansion, with strong connections to the home land buy up entire screens and resell the tickets. Shows are usually limited but always sold out. In fact ticket sales go so well that after one of the major cinemas in town that had the seat capacity and “willingness” to book Bollywood films closed down earlier this year, shows moved to an IMAX screen.