Top Chinese Brands Bet on Star Power of American Blockbusters

Former Hollywood Exec Sirena Liu Guides Gutsy Marketers Into Branded Content

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Ambitious Chinese marketers are looking to Hollywood to lend glamour and cachet to their brands.

Last year's "Transformers 3" featured the most-high-profile product placements yet for Chinese brands, most notably a mention in the script for Yili's Shuhua milk. Marketers are now eager to re-create that type of interest in upcoming installments of the "Transformers," "Ironman" and "The Fast and the Furious" franchises.

Sirena Liu
Sirena Liu

Working behind the scenes to broker these deals is Sirena Liu, president of Beijing-based Filmworks China Entertainment Marketing. She's targeting the boldest players in categories such as home appliances, cellphones, computers and clothing.

"It's a huge risk for marketers," said Ms. Liu, who previously handled publicity and marketing for Columbia Pictures co-productions in China. "It's shot thousands of miles away, you don't know anyone there and there's only one agent here. It really takes some confidence."

Filmworks China is growing and recently signed a deal with JWT China to create the agency network's second JWT Entertainment entity. (The first is in London.) The two sides will share resources and clients. Ms. Liu said she's exploring collaborations with more partners, including other ad agencies.

The branded-content gamble seems to have paid off for some. "Transformers 3: The Dark Side of the Moon" was the top-grossing film in China last year, taking an estimated $170 million at the box office, and audiences were excited to see homegrown brands in a foreign blockbuster.

Marketers placing products in the movie through Ms. Liu included casualwear retailer Meters/bonwe, computer-maker Lenovo and consumer-electronics manufacturer TCL.

It's still early days for Chinese brands' involvement in Hollywood, and one of the challenges is managing clients' expectations. Because they rely on advertising to help pay for production, Chinese studios are more willing to accede to marketers' demands. But Hollywood producers, who get their budgets from studios, can afford to be picky.

"The most difficult part is for Chinese clients to understand that money cannot buy everything," Ms. Liu said. "American filmmakers already have the budget. ... The movie will be made with or without the placement. What filmmakers in the States look at more is , what can the brand do when the movie is released to deliver at the box office?"

One example of outsize ambition was a heavy-truck maker, a good fit for a film like "Transformers," that wanted the director to create a character based on its truck. "That's just not going to happen," Ms. Liu said. "The client cannot accept that ."

Yili initially wanted "Transformers" character Bumblebee to drink milk and become strong. "And of course the director is like, 'That doesn't make sense, how does a robot drink milk?' Ms. Liu said. "So it didn't happen, but Yili did other stuff that turned out pretty well."

That "other stuff" was a mention of Yili's Shuhua milk in the script, as the character played by Ken Jeong slurps from a box of the low-lactose product and tells a coworker who confronts him in an elevator, "May I finish my Shuhua milk, Tony?" The coworker responds that he doesn't care about "exotic milk."

Director Michael Bay told reporters that he used the milk as a "comedy tool."

"Putting Coca-Cola there was not funny, but putting Shuhua milk was," the China Daily newspaper quoted Mr. Bay as saying.

Shuhua milk in 'Transformers'
Shuhua milk in 'Transformers'

Ms. Liu would not disclose what Yili paid to get its item in the script but said it was "not some humongous" amount. The company didn't even bargain with the producers, she added.

Filmworks China has become a victim of its own success in some ways, and Ms. Liu said many clients are demanding a similar type of placement.

"It's close to impossible," Ms. Liu said. "There's no movie as high-profile as 'Transformers.' Only 'Avatar' was bigger, but it didn't do product placement. And it's not like you have 'Transformers' every year," she added. "We set such a high standard, it's difficult for us to do anything better than that ."

In addition to Hollywood movies, Filmworks China has placed Chinese brands in American TV shows, including "Big Bang Theory," "Nikita" and "Gossip Girl." It also handles licensing and promotion deals for companies such as Dreamworks Animation, Hasbro and EA.

Ms. Liu said that she sees opportunities with cosmetics and financial-services companies, asking "Why not make a 'Kung Fu Panda' bank card?"

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