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Lost in Thailand's Box Office Bonanza
Summary:Lost in Thailand has so far pulled in over 1.1 billion yuan at the box office. The surprise success was combination of wise investment, marketing, timing and a market hungry for comedy.

By Li Li (李丽)
Issue 602, Jan 7, 2013
News, cover
Translated by Zhu Na
Original article: [Chinese]

After the box office takings of the Chinese film Lost in Thailand surpassed the 1 billion yuan mark on Jan 1, director Xu Zheng (徐峥) felt unprecedented fear as he became the center of a box office miracle.

Lost in Thailand has now become the highest grossing Chinese film in history and is on pace to surpass James Cameron's Avatar to become the highest grossing fim ever to screen in China.

"I just made a simple film, a normal film," Zheng said. "I wanted to get a normal result, but now Lost in Thailand obviously isn't normal."  

The film's investor, Wang Changtian (王长田), chairman of Enlight Media (光线传媒有限公司), is more comfortable with the sudden success.

"This is my proudest moment since I founded the company," he said.

The film cost just 30 million yuan to make, and with a 43 percent cut of the box office receipts, Enlight Media will make more off this one movie than its entire profits of 176 million yuan in 2012. As of Jan 7, the film had raked in 1.1 billion yuan and Enlight Media’s share price had increased more than 80 percent since December.

The Man Enlight Media Was Waiting For

Before Lost In Thailand, Enlight Media had little to brag about in terms of film performance. Wang said that because it lacked experience in film investment, Enlight Pictures, a subsidiary of Enlight Media, had invested in plenty of flops but no masterpieces.  

In the studio's early days, it mostly worked with Hong Kong directors and tended toward costume dramas. Its films included The Assassins (铜雀台), Missing (深海寻人), Flying Butterfly (蝴蝶飞), Speed Angels (极速天使) and The Second Woman (情谜). Most lost money.

On the heels of these flops, Wang gradually developed a new investment strategy in early 2011 that involved shifting toward mainland directors. In Wang's view, Hong Kong directors are undoubtedly skilled but lack "explosive force" (爆发力). While mainland directors are comparatively less skilled, they're innovative and pack more punch. The risk of investing in them is higher, Wang says, but there is more potential for making profit.

Part of the strategy was also to focus on films with a mid-range budget. Over the years, Wang has begun to disagree with the long-held film industry view that only movies at opposite ends of the budget spectrum will succeed, while mid-range films will usually fail. On the contrary, he thinks mid-range films are what the market needs.
Xu Zheng's Lost In Thailand met all of the requirements under Enlight Pictures' new investment strategy. Plus Wang felt Xu would be a reliable director. Xu had worked for years directing stage plays, which allowed him to face audiences directly and get a feel for what made them laugh.

A Marketing Triumph

Two months before the release of Lost in Thailand, Enlight had already launched its marketing plan.

To the surprise of the marketing department, Director Xu got heavily involved with many aspects of promoting the film, including advising on posters, trailers and the release date.

Enlight Media also had a wide range of communication resources at its disposal. Many programs produced by the company are aired on local TV stations across the country. The company was also able to make use of other internal channels to advertise on buses, subways, trains, airplanes, hospitals and school campuses. Enlight Media was able to make use of these outlets to support Enlight Pictures, so two months before Lost in Thailand was released, advertisements were already popping up everywhere.

Advertisements were also launched on Alipay (similar to PayPal) and promoted through outlets aimed at middle-aged and elderly viewers, emphasizing the family appeal. Trailers for the movie ran on television displays at Suning and Guomei stores, while 30 different promotional posters went up around the country. Wang said these initiatives captured a wide demographic.

But it was perhaps the film's release date that played the most critical role, coupled with the overconfidence of Huayi Bros. Media Group (华谊兄弟) - Enlight Media's largest rival.

According to Gao Jun (高军), deputy manager of New Film Association, Huayi had originally scheduled CZ12 (十二生肖), a Hong Kong action film starring Jackie Chan, to open on Dec 12, 2012. However, Huayi was concerned that its Nov 29 release of Back to 1942 (温故1942), directed by Feng Xiaogang, would be so successful that it would clash with CZ12. So the studio pushed back CZ12's premier to Dec 20.

Enlight wasn't confident that its 30 million yuan Lost in Thailand could compete with the 300 million yuan CZ12, so it pushed up the release from Dec 21 to Dec 12. Back to 1942 ended up being a box office disappointment and gave Lost in Thailand more than a week to gain momentum.

A Hungry Market

Among the movies screened in major cinemas in December, Lost in Thailand was the only comedy. Director Xu said he didn't anticipate how hungry the market was for comedy.

Chinese film researcher Gao Wufeng (高五峰) says that the success of Lost in Thailand has something to do with the overall economic environment. It's similar to the American film market in that people like to draw positive energy from movies during an economic downturn. Given the saturation of dramatic and tragic movies in China's film market, Lost in Thailand was the sole release for film-goers' pent-up desire to laugh.

Finally, China's overall film industry growth last year enabled the 1 billion yuan box office take. Nearly 600 Chinese movies were released in 2012 together making over 16.5 billion yuan. Over the past 10 years, China's film industry has averaged 35 percent annual growth – the highest in the world. According to an Ernst & Young's forecast, China is likely to overtake the U.S. as the world's largest film market by 2020.

But in spite of the tremendous growth in film output and revenue, film industry innovation has lagged behind. Yin Hong (尹鸿), vice dean of the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University, said that China's film industry still lacks clear standards and rules. So once a successful product comes out, people scramble to copy it.

There will undoubtedly be knockoffs following the "Lost in ..." theme, but For Xu Zheng, the biggest worry is how he'll be able to top Lost in Thailand.


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