Ethan Hunt’s Secret Weapon in China: Alibaba Pictures

    By Jim Erickson | Alizila

    Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation, the summer blockbuster movie starring Tom Cruise as superspy Ethan Hunt, debuts Sept. 8 in the increasingly crucial China market backed by a promotional rollout powered by Alibaba Group’s potent e-commerce ecosystem.

    The China campaign for Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation is an early test of Alibaba’s bid to expand its e-commerce businesses into the entertainment realm, a strategy spearheaded by its Alibaba Pictures affiliate. Formed last year to bring high-quality movies to Chinese audiences, Alibaba Pictures invested an undisclosed amount in Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation in a partnership with Paramount Pictures, a stake that Alibaba Pictures CEO Zhang Qiang called a “first step towards internationalization.”

    Alibaba Pictures is leading the high-profile Hollywood movie’s online promotion in China, which last year became the first market outside of the U.S. and Canada to see annual global box office exceed $4 billion. Alibaba Pictures also has China merchandising rights for Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation (MI 5), which has been a summer hit so far, generating more than $500 million in global ticket sales since its July 31 release.

    Cruise brings starpower to the China debutthe A-list actor made an appearance at a premiere for MI 5 in Shanghai on Sept. 6 alongside Alibaba Group Executive Chairman Jack Ma. Alibaba brings “Internet DNA” to the MI 5 China campaign, said Xiaoying Shen, a producer in Alibaba Pictures’ international division.

    Instead of relying solely on conventional promotional tools such as print ads, billboards and TV commercials for MI 5 promotion, Alibaba is providing exposure to hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers who use the company’s giant online shopping websites and mobile shopping apps, as well as visibility through social media and other outlets beyond Alibaba properties.

    “When it comes to marketing, we have a more Internet-based strategy,” Shen said, something that traditional film studios and distributors are looking for when seeking overseas investors and partners. Alibaba Group’s China retail marketplaces have more than 367 million annual active buyers; Alibaba last year accounted for more than 86 percent of mobile purchases by Chinese consumers, according to iResearch. “We can capitalize on those platforms within the Alibaba ecosystem and integrate them into the marketing,” Shen said.

    Central to MI 5 digital ticket sales is Alibaba Group’s Taobao Movies e-ticketing app, which allows users to book seats at cinemas throughout China. Some 200,000 tickets to the movie were sold via the app last week during a presale event, according to Alibaba Pictures.

    The film is also being promoted through banner ads on Alibaba’s Taobao Marketplace, the country’s largest shopping site; popular Mobile Taobao shopping and Alipay e-payment apps; and through other mobile apps in China, including Didi Dache, Netease Mailbox and photo-sharing app Meipai, all of which will display an MI 5 movie poster on their splash screens.  

    Offline, Alibaba Pictures partnered with TV manufacturer TCL to broadcast MI 5 trailers on TCL TV screens on display in brick-and-mortar stores.

    Shen stressed that social media such as micro-blogging platform Weibo, in which Alibaba Group has an 18 percent stake, plays a large role in promotion. Movie-related MI 5 games are being offered on platforms including Weibo, Mobile Taobao and Alipay. Lucky consumers who receive special limited-edition tickets can also earn rewards through Weibo activities.

    “When it comes to effectiveness in reaching mainstream moviegoers, social media is a great way to reach a large, Internet-savvy audience, and economically it’s more efficient” than buying ads, Shen said. “We definitely think this is where our strength lies.”

    Alibaba Picture’s partnership in MI 5 comes at a time when Hollywood studios are stepping up efforts to woo Chinese audiences. While theater revenue in the U.S. declined last year, China’s box office jumped 34% to $4.8 billion, making it the first foreign market to surpass the $4-billion mark. Total global box-office revenue reached $36.4 billion, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, driven by surging ticket sales and the addition of new cinemas in China.

    In the first half of 2015, China ticket sales shot up nearly 50%. Imported films accounted for 52.5% of the total, although the Chinese government continues to limit the number of foreign movies allowed into the country annually. 

    For the MI 5 debut, Alibaba Pictures also took the lead in arranging, promoting and selling movie-related merchandise. Alibaba Pictures helped Paramount connect with merchants to manufacture and sell more than 30 authorized MI 5 products on Taobao Marketplace. MI 5-themed items range from t-shirts to backpacks to umbrellas.

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