Dozens of production crews lined up on a custom red carpet outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre last week to clamor for an interview with Katy Perry as she made her way into the screening of her 3-D concert movie, “Katy Perry: Part of Me.”
It wasn’t unusual. Hollywood red carpets for showy premieres have been covered for years by such recognizable names as E! Entertainment Television and even the Associated Press. But there was something unusual at last week’s event. Among the throng, next to a USA Today crew, was a small L.A. outfit with an unfamiliar name: Hollywood Dynasty Media.
What’s more, the company hadn’t stepped onto the red carpet for an American audience. Rather, it was there for the exploding number of Chinese movie fans searching online for infotainment.
Earlier this year, the company signed a deal with Sina Corp., a Shanghai, China, web company that posts the subtitled celebrity interviews to a social network with 300 million users – almost the population of the United States – and its hugely popular Chinese-language news portal.
“It’s very important that the Chinese see promotion. They don’t just want to get a trailer to a movie,” said Jon Melichar, founder of Hollywood Dynasty. “This is a massive opportunity.”
It’s one that Hollywood studios are fully aware of as they scramble to break further into the expanding Chinese movie market. Melichar said his crews are getting better access to the stars at some events.
Still, the Sina name that adorns Hollywood Dynasty’s yellow microphone flag is virtually unknown in the United States, and securing access can be a challenge. For example, Paramount Pictures, which distributed the Perry movie, gave the company access to last week’s premiere, but Melichar’s request for access to last week’s premiere of Sony Pictures’ latest Spider-Man movie was shot down.
But as China increases the number of American movies allowed into the country – up to 34 from 20 per year, due a recent deal negotiated by Vice President Joe Biden – Melichar is betting studios will increasingly steer their movies’ publicity campaigns eastward. The Biden deal also allows studios to take 25 percent of Chinese ticket sales compared with a previous share that averaged about 15 percent. It doesn’t hurt that the country’s box office eclipsed $2 billion in ticket sales last year, with additional cinemas being constructed every day.
Qi Guo, an analyst who covers Sina Corp. at ThinkEquity Partners LLC in San Francisco, said Hollywood Dynasty has linked up with what might be the best platform in China to reach Hollywood movie fans, noting Sina’s websites tend to attract Chinese professionals with healthy discretionary income, rather than just university students with less to spend.
“Sina is very dominant. If you have any news on the Sina portal, it’s very powerful over there,” he said. “The exposure is something you cannot imagine.”
Seizing the opportunity
Melichar, a former comedian, has worked in television for decades, first appearing on camera as a reporter for “Good Day L.A.,” before moving into a producer role at E!. More recently, he turned his focus on the Far East as the entertainment news director at Asian-language TV station KSCI-TV (18) in Los Angeles.
Though he doesn’t speak Mandarin fluently, he was able to score the deal with Sina after becoming friendly with some of the company’s field producers at events such as last year’s comic-book convention Comic-Con in San Diego.
Sina occasionally flew employees from China to cover longer entertainment events in the United States. But Melichar saw an opportunity to expand the coverage to include hundreds of other one-day events, such as L.A. red-carpet premieres.
Last year, he approached Tian Li, North American business development manager at Sina, with the idea. The two negotiated between Beijing and Los Angeles using Skype, late-night phone calls and e-mails, reaching a 12-month deal earlier this year. Hollywood Dynasty agreed to provide 100 interviews for a total of $150,000, providing a big increase from the 10 or so original videos that Sina had been posting from Hollywood just a couple of years ago.
“We came in and said, ‘Why don’t we do it all?’ We will apply for credentials for everything,” said Melichar, who received money up front to start the company.
He keeps costs low, mostly by using a small crew of a reporter and a freelance cameraman. Editing is sometimes done on location using a laptop. There is just one full-time employee on the payroll, and the company keeps a small North Hollywood office as a base of operations.
Li sends the videos to Beijing, where they are posted on Sina’s news site, often within 24 hours. He also sometimes puts them on Sina’s social network, which is named Weibo and is sort of a cross between Facebook and Twitter.
Li, who moved to Los Angeles this year, has joined Melichar in his sales visits to studios and spreads the message about Weibo. Since Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are all blocked to Chinese Internet users, Weibo, a Mandarin word for “microblog,” is one of the few options to reach Chinese consumers via social media. The flagship Sina news site, Sina.com.cn and the Weibo.com social network rank as the 15th and 29th most popular Internet sites in the world, according to Alexa.com, a website traffic-monitoring site.
On Weibo, stars and studios can maintain personal pages, where quips or videos can be posted, similar to how stars maintain Facebook and Twitter pages domestically. Tom Cruise, whose action film “Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” was wildly successful in China, has about 4 million followers on Weibo.
“We tell them that if they want their movies to be well-received in China, a good way is to start an account,” Li said.
Front of the line
At last week’s premiere, Paramount not only granted Hollywood Dynasty a spot but placed the crew in the first half of the sprawling media line, where stars are more receptive. Indeed, Perry stopped to chat with his crew for a while, talking about the message of the movie and other light topics.
Sometimes questions for the red-carpet interviews come from Weibo social network users. At the very least there is usually some kind of direct message to people in China in the posted videos, such as a simple “ni hao,” or hello.
In a recent interview with Morgan Freeman, on a Hollywood red carpet to promote his latest movie, Magnolia Pictures’ “The Magic of Belle Isle,” the star was asked to give a message to Liu Yang, China’s first female astronaut, who went into space this month. Put on the spot, he awkwardly invited her to hang out with him, with the video including an animated pairing of the two, à la TMZ.
Melichar said as he tries to build Sina’s presence in Hollywood, he’s being met with the most enthusiasm from studios already doing significant business in China, such as Burbank entertainment titan Walt Disney Co., which is currently working on “Iron Man 3” as a Chinese co-production with a Beijing movie studio.
He pointed to the recent premiere of Disney Pixar movie “Brave” as a high point for the company. His crew was placed at the Dolby Theatre in the eighth spot of the red-carpet media line, next to recognizable national outlets such as CNN and NBC.
“All these companies that are opening in Beijing know how big it is,” he said.