On Screen China: Sony’s Marketing Caper Wins at Box Office for 007

A Chinese poster for Spectre. (Sony Pictures)

A Chinese poster for Spectre. (Sony Pictures)

Bond-mania swept over China this past weekend, much to the delight of Sony, which has struggled with underperforming releases this year in the world’s second-biggest film market. Spectre, the 24th installment in the enduring spy series, pulled in nearly $49 million from Chinese moviegoers in its first three days.

Spectre’s $15 million opening day on Friday, November 13, nearly matched the combined totals for the entire runs of Sony’s other two revenue-sharing releases this year—Annie ($540,000) and Pixels ($15.8 million). While those films were based on storylines foreign to most Chinese, James Bond and his collection of high-end brand-name accessories are already well known in a country obsessed with luxury goods.

The previous Bond installment, Skyfall, ranked seventh among imported films screened in 2013, grossing $60 million in China, but the nation’s market size has more than doubled in the past two years. With Spectre, Sony was keen on exposing the 007 brand to the growing middle-class in China’s third- and fourth-tier cities, the source of the current box office boom.

Sony smartly chose the Chinese version of Black Friday, last week’s “Singles Day” (Nov. 11), as the focal point of their China marketing campaign. In a widely publicized appearance, Daniel Craig went onstage alongside Jack Ma, CEO of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, during the company’s Tmall Singles Day Gala, an extravaganza described as “a combination of the Grammys, the Oscars, a game show, the Home Shopping Network and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” Despite an incredibly awkward introduction and a slapdash onstage game (at one point, both Ma and emcee He Jiong are seen simultaneously interpreting for a clearly confused Craig), the gala was viewed by an audience estimated at 500 million.

In another savvy marketing move by Sony targeting a broad audience, Hunan TV’s popular variety show Day Day Up (天天向上) will devote its entire program to Spectre on Friday, Nov. 20. Sony estimates that the show will reach more than 70 million viewers live on television and online, and it is the first time a foreign film has been featured. Sony will be hoping this appearance will keep the buzz going for Bond into its second weekend when he goes up against Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2.

Of course, not all Hollywood films have the same kind of China marketing budget and star power to command as much attention as Spectre has, but it is still refreshing to see a studio market a film with more than the standard techniques focused on wealthy first-tier cities. A Beijing red-carpet premiere, Shanghai Bund glamour shots, and videotaped greetings have become de rigueur for Hollywood films over the past few years and verge on turning into industry cliches, so the move to insert Spectre and its stars into the heart of mainstream Chinese media appears relatively bold in comparison.

Yet despite all the media attention and its opening weekend box-office success in China, Spectre‘s reception among critics and audiences has thus far mirrored the response overseas.  Spectre has a rating of only 63% on RottenTomatoes (compared to Skyfall’s 93%), while on the Chinese review web site Douban, the average audience rating is 6.2/10, one of the lowest for imported releases this year.

On Douban and other social media platforms, viewers complained about the “sleep-inducing plot” and “interminable running time” (148 minutes). Douban user Essisse’s 2 star rating was typical: “Spectre was too formulaic, had nothing to distinguish it from other spy movies, and completely lacked suspense.”

Thanks to Sony’s innovative marketing campaign, Spectre undoubtedly will surpass Skyfall’s cumulative total of $60 million sometime on Wednesday, but poor word of mouth and a crowded release schedule full of Hollywood and local competition over the next two weeks most likely will prevent it from hitting the $100 million mark. However, given China’s market expansion since Skyfall’s release and the comparatively tepid global reception for Spectre, Sony should be pleased with Bond’s performance.

—Follow Jonathan Papish on Twitter @ChinaBoxOffice.