China's calling card at the cinema

Chinese companies Alibaba Pictures and China Movie Channel are investors of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, starring Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson.
Chinese companies Alibaba Pictures and China Movie Channel are investors of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, starring Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson.PHOTO: UIP SINGAPORE

The latest Mission: Impossible film starts just like the first four, with the iconic Paramount Pictures logo of stars swirling around a snow-capped peak.

Seconds later, the insignia for China Movie Channel pops up, and then the one for Alibaba Pictures. That made movie historian Jonathan Kuntz put down his popcorn.

It is no secret the two put money into the release - the first such investment for Alibaba - but a splash on the big screen brings it home. "It's the new reality of the film business," says Dr Kuntz, who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles.

America has been the king of popular culture exports for decades and Chinese companies are muscling in and slapping their brands on the biggest money-makers.

The animated titles that roll before Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, are distinctive, parading the names of China Movie Channel, owned by the Chinese government, and the film unit of Alibaba Group Holding, the country's e-commerce giant.

Wanda Pictures, the Dalian Wanda Group subsidiary that paid the costs to make Southpaw with Jake Gyllenhaal, gets second billing after Weinstein Co, the distributor.

Wanda's so-called vanity card is a world away from MGM's roaring lion. It is an animation in the style of traditional ink-wash painting, with water drops falling on green leaves, which Wanda says represents the essence of nature and is a lucky symbol in Chinese culture. The drops coalesce and dissipate to reveal the studio's name, in red Chinese and Roman characters.

"This is a branding exercise," says Mr Marc Ganis, co-founder of Jiaflix Enterprises, which helps market and distribute films in China.

Companies are recognising the value of making a statement and are demanding prime placement. They want audiences to know they are producers, "not an after-thought".

The Gift, the first movie from the start-up studio STX Entertainment, which has a financing deal with Huayi Brothers Media Corp, is introduced with its Chinese partners' opening-credit clip. Inspired by a clock mechanism, it incorporates the head of a golden dragon.

"The delicate gears' movements represent Huayi Brothers' prowess and pursuit of perfection," said spokesman Zhang Yiju. Moviegoers will see it again next year in The Free State Of Jones.

The practice of trademarking films with vanity cards began in the early 1900s, with moving logos in the 1920s and musical fanfares arriving with the advent of sound.

Today, they can be playful or soaring mini-advertisements to remind people who is paying for the entertainment.

"We hope global audiences will have a stronger perception of Huayi Brothers after seeing the title sequence," said Mr Zhang.

"This explains our journey to the global stage." BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2015, with the headline 'China's calling card at the cinema'. Print Edition | Subscribe