LOS ANGELES • Now that Hollywood has mostly figured out how to get its biggest movies approved for release in China, studio marketeers here are grappling with a new puzzle: What is the best way to woo China's ticket buyers?
Chinese theatres do not typically play trailers. The cost of advertising on TV can be exorbitant, in part because studios must buy time at the last minute. China usually limits foreign films to an advertising window of a few weeks.
Instead, film companies pay for outdoor banners and signs, advertise online, team up with local promotional partners and, increasingly, call a company with enormous reach that few people outside of China have ever heard of: Mtime.
Founded in 2005 in Beijing by Mr Kelvin Hou, a former Microsoft executive, Mtime started as an online listing of movie times, hence the name. Then a film database was built and added. Next came a movie-news service, aggregation of user-submitted reviews, a movie- scoring system and an online ticket service for 3,000 theatres.
Now attracting 160 million unique desktop and mobile users per month, according to Mr Hou, Mtime is effectively Fandango, IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes and Yahoo Movies rolled into one.
And for a fee, Mtime will promote movies through all of these services, helping studios to quickly cover a market they covet but do not yet fully understand.
Next comes merchandising: Mtime, which counts Fidelity Growth Partners and CBC Capital among its backers, has started designing movie-themed products sold on its website and at Chinese multiplexes. Mtime began opening these "merchandising centres", many in partnership with Wanda Cinemas, China's largest theatre operator, in January. Mr Hou will have 80 of these centres operating by December.
Walt Disney Studios was one of Mtime's early merchandising partners. According to Mr Hou, Mtime sold 300 items tied to Avengers: Age Of Ultron, which was released in China in June. Recently, Cinderella dresses were selling on Mtime's site for US$53 (S$74).
Hollywood is trying to improve the profitability of releasing films in China, a movie market that is soon expected to surpass the United States as the world's largest. Ticket sales totalled US$4.8 billion last year, a 34 per cent increase from a year earlier, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
But foreign studios typically receive a 25 per cent share of ticket sales from China; Hollywood's cut from movies released in North America is closer to 50 per cent.
American studios have long relied on sales of movie-themed products elsewhere in the world, but China has been difficult to crack, in part because cheap knockoffs proliferate overnight.
But there appears to be a shift at hand. Disney, for instance, in May opened its first Disney Store in China.
Over the previous weekend, Universal and Sony used Mtime theatre screens to run trailers for Minions and Pixels, both for release in China next month.
Mtime is not alone in this arena. Douban, an arts-focused social network, has as much sway in the movie-review realm, if not more, operating a scoring system based on critiques from tens of thousands of users.
For those seeking movie news, Mtime competes with the entertainment sections of Internet companies such as Tencent.
Tencent - which owns the wildly popular WeChat messaging service that, marketing executives say, has itself becoming a crucial movie promotional tool - is also a major movie ticket seller, along with Baidu and Alibaba Group.
But no competitor has integrated all of these functions under one umbrella in the way Mtime has. That integration plays a role in its influence on Hollywood, and not just because Mtime has created an environment of one-stop promotional shopping.
NEW YORK TIMES