Now that Hollywood has mostly figured out how to get its biggest movies approved for release in China, studio marketers here are grappling with a new puzzle: What is the best way to woo China's ticket buyers?
Trailers and television advertisements, the two most effective methods to drum up interest, are difficult marketing tools to use in China. Chinese theaters 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 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 theaters. Now attracting 160 million unique desktop and mobile users a 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.
Walt Disney Studios was one of Mtime's early merchandising partners. According to Mr. Hou, Mtime sold 300 items tied to "The Avengers: Age of Ultron," which was released in China in June. Recently, "Cinderella" dresses were selling on Mtime's site for $53.
In itself, the ability to sell merchandise inside Chinese theaters is tantalizing to Hollywood, which 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 totaled $4.8 billion last year, a 34 percent increase from a year earlier, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. But foreign studios typically receive a 25 percent share of ticket sales from China; Hollywood's cut from movies released in North America is closer to 50 percent.
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 like Sina, Tencent and Sohu.
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 the 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.