Wednesday, Mar 29, 2017, 7:11 PM CST – China

Culture

Movie Producer Lü Jianmin

An Eye for Success

With a gift for spotting untapped niche markets, producer Lü Jianmin has made a name for himself in China’s huge movie market by exploiting a film’s true selling point, whether it’s eroticism, fear or patriotism

Lü Jianmin Photo by IC

Poster art for Wolf Warriors Photo by IC

Producer Lü Jianmin goes to the movies twice a week. Before buying his ticket, he spends a lot of time studying each movie’s poster and cast list. Once he enters the theater, he counts the number of occupied seats, noting down the audience’s gender ratio and general age range. Then, after he goes back home, he immediately checks how much the movie grossed at the box office.

To Lü, this is work.

Business

Lü entered the movie industry when he was nearly 40 years old, yet he quickly impressed industry stalwarts by repeatedly pinpointing overlooked potential. He bought the distribution rights to the practically unknown 1996 art film Rainclouds Over Wushan for 10,000 yuan (then US$1,220) and then proceeded to sell more than 500,000 copies of the DVD, making a profit of 6 million yuan (US$850,000). In 2009, he invested 2 million yuan (US$294,000) in the low-budget horror flick Midnight Taxi and ended up making 16 million yuan (US$2.4m) at the box office, even though the movie was showing at the same time as Avatar and Zhang Yimou’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop. More recently, he produced the military-themed Wolf Warriors, a 2015 movie about China’s special forces solving border disputes caused by mercenaries hired by drug traffickers. With an investment of 74.5 million yuan (US$12m), the movie grossed 540 million yuan (US$81m) in theaters, despite its seemingly tired theme.

This box office result was unexpected. The movie didn’t have much star power, relying instead on quasi-famous actor Wu Jing to both direct and lead a cast of virtual unknowns. To make matters worse, it was competing with Let’s Get Married, a movie adaptation of a popular TV series that starred many household names, including Gao Yuanyuan, Liu Tao, Zheng Kai and Li Chen. At the same time, movies with an obvious patriotic feel (like Wolf Warriors) tend to make movie-goers wary of being fed propaganda. All of these factors added up to an unfavorable box office forecast.

However, Lü held the opposite perspective. He believed modern war movies have huge market potential in China, and by appealing to the patriotic side of Chinese people, it could even be a hit. This is his gift; peering into what others overlook and seeing the possibility for success. He’s made a career out of it.

‘Eyeball Economy’

Before he got into the movie industry, Lü lived in Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province, and ran a real estate business that failed in 1998. He then moved to Beijing and happened to make contact with some members of China’s “sixth generation” of directors by chance. He watched their movies, many of which were relatively unknown at that time, and often found traces of himself within the movies’ socially marginalized characters.

Lü said he was also marginalized and “suffered a lot” to get to where he is today. He started writing novels in middle school. He failed China’s college entrance examination but continued to write novels while working after high school. He wasn’t a successful writer, though he made a living by writing for local newspapers and TV stations. In the 1990s, he started his own advertising agency and later turned to the real estate industry until that venture failed.

Lü related to many of his chosen films’ characters; while his artistic side was drawn to their stories, the businessman in him saw the films’ market potential. He wanted to help sell these unknown works and quickly realized that these movies often lacked a commercial advertising strategy. Before releasing Rainclouds Over Wushan on DVD, he put an image of a naked couple in the throes of passion on the promotional poster accompanied by the words: “Brought back to light after being banned for eight years.” The stunt made the art movie a great commercial success, selling more than half a million copies.

“[Promotional] materials and the movie’s name are all very important. It’s an ‘eyeball economy,’” he said.

After combining his artistic interest and business experience to make the DVD release a profitable endeavor, Lü went on to successfully distribute other works from many sixth-generation directors, including Lu Xuechang, Li Yu, Wang Xiaoshuai and Li Yang.

Overall DVD sales in China fell as more people started watching movies online, but box office takings began to rise. Lü quickly shifted his focus from DVD distribution to movie production.

Without strong financial backup, Lü chose to find projects for niche markets so that his small investments could still find an audience rather than trying to compete for the consumer base of the big studios.

It was with this mindset that Lü invested in Midnight Taxi. The director’s original concept was a realistic depiction of the hard life of taxi drivers and other disadvantaged groups. Lü maintained that the movie needed a selling point. He insisted they turn it into a horror movie.

At that time, no mainland horror movie had ever been a commercial success. However, Midnight Taxi became an unexpected hit over Christmas in 2009. Lü began to realize that many of his audience members were from smaller cities. Two years later, Lü directed a horror movie called No. 32, B District, producing it with a budget of 1 million yuan (US$154,000). It ended up grossing 20 million yuan (US$3.2m) at the box office.

An Outlet for Nationalism

Wolf Warriors’ tagline is emblazoned on its posters: “No matter the distance, anyone who attacks China must be punished!”

A couple of years ago, when actor and director Wu Jing told Lü his idea of shooting a modern war movie, Lü felt himself becoming intuitively excited. He once again saw an undeveloped wellspring touched by few in the movie industry – modern Chinese warfare, a theme that had already proven successful for a number of recent TV shows such as Soldiers Sortie and Digital Army.

Lü is also a military enthusiast in real life. One of his favorite websites is tiexue.net (tiexue literally means “iron and blood”), a Chinese military portal which is well-known for its nationalistic user base.

Lü doesn’t shy away from the label. “I am a nationalist,” he told NewsChina. In his opinion, most Chinese people are at least partially nationalistic, especially at a time when China is at the center of a number of international disputes, like those surrounding the Diaoyu Islands (known as the Senkaku in Japan), the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island in China) and cross-border bombings by Burmese jets in China’s southwest. In Lü’s mind, a movie with nationalistic characteristics can give nationalists, like himself, an outlet. “The box office results would definitely be strong,” he said.

“Chinese people like to watch Hollywood war movies, but they’re attracted by their cinematography and special effects,” Lü told NewsChina. “Wolf Warriors, on the other hand, will set Chinese people’s hearts afire because it’s about their own country.”

Therefore, instead of listening to many of his friends’ suggestions to tone down the movie’s patriotic feel, Lü reinforced it. Bloody battles and passionate patriotism permeate most of the movie’s scenes. Even the trailer exudes national pride; its narrator re-reads the tagline in a strong, intense tone. Wu Jing went to nearly 600 theaters in 21 cities on his promotional tour for the movie and, on many of these stops, he led revved-up audience members in collectively shouting the slogan.

Yet Lü was also aware of the movie’s shortcomings – the cast wasn’t strong enough. Some theaters did not even want to be a part of the Wolf Warriors promotional tour. Lü decided to avoid the usual route, perhaps learning from the strengths of his previous films. Instead of launching the tour in Beijing, Shanghai or other first-tier cities as most movies do, Wolf Warriors started its promotional tour in Langfang, a third-tier city in Hebei Province. The strategy worked. The local media gave the movie a lot of coverage. Movie-goers who rarely see stars in person went crazy at promotional events that took place in their own hometowns.

Wolf Warriors performed well at the box office in second- and third-tier cities. According to data from entertainment industry research center EntGroup, Let’s Get Married was better received in Beijing and Shanghai, while Wolf Warriors gained wider support in smaller cities. Some critics said that Wolf Warriors was especially appealing to “small-town youth.”

The success of Wolf Warriors confirmed that Lü’s confidence in modern Chinese military movies was well placed and his strategy of playing off audience’s patriotism worked. He saw something that others missed. While busy developing new projects, Lü has already started work on two sequels to Wolf Warriors

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