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Green Book, a Tale of Friendship Thriving on China’s Big Screens

By Melody Yuan

Mar. 7, 2019
Green Book poster
“Green Book” is the first movie of its genre to be screened in movie theaters across China

With three Golden Globes and three Oscar wins, “Green Book” is released in China

At its core, “Green Book” is a heartwarming story based on an unlikely friendship between a musical prodigy and his driver as they travel across the South during the Jim Crow era. Based on the true story of Dr. Don Shirley, a classical and jazz pianist and composer who many have lauded as a musical virtuoso, the movie zooms in specifically on his concert tour in 1962 and his relationship with his chauffeur and unlikely friend, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga.

Since its release in the U.S. in November, “Green Book” has not only sparked conversation across the country, it has won three Golden Globes and three Oscars, including Best Picture. With prominent actors like Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali playing Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Vallelonga, this comedy-drama is charged with chemistry and wit throughout. While some critics, including some members of Shirley’s own family, have denounced the movie as being far from the truth, others have used adjectives such as “heartwarming,” “uplifting” and “relevant” to describe the film’s narrative. And now, “Green Book” has been released internationally, and is the first of its genre to be screened in movie theaters across China. Since its debut on March 1st, “Green Book” has seen strong interest from the Chinese public as reflected in its ticket sales revenue. The movie made $17.2 million over the past weekend, ranking third closely behind the animation movie, “How to Train Your Dragon 3” and Fox’s “Alita: Battle Angel.” By Wednesday, March 6, “Green Book” took the lead and has generated $25 million from China alone.

“This is a profound film,” says Wei Zhang, president of Alibaba Pictures. “It’s complex, and we believe that good storytelling will travel a long way. Look at all the awards this movie has received and been nominated for already. The story is being recognized around the world.” With Alibaba Pictures’ marketing support, “Green Book” is distributed by Huaxia Film.

“Our involvement in co-financing ‘Green Book’ actually came out of our relationship with Amblin Entertainment,” says Zhang. “Participant Media is a great studio and has made many socially conscious films. They also invested in Amblin, so it just made sense to support this film since it’s already part of the family. Part of our role with our partner is to help them look at their output for the year, and then help them decide which films we believe have theatrical potential. This movie definitely stood out with theatrical potential.”

Why is this movie coming to China now?

An American Jim Crow-era film focused on race relations has never hit China’s big screens before. “Green Book” is the first of its kind, and Alibaba Pictures is leading the way in bringing this dialogue across borders. “We always think about how we can really make a difference as an internet company coming into this entertainment space, in terms of opening new opportunities,” says Zhang. “With a big sci-fi or a superhero movie, it’s easy to estimate how well they’ll do in the Chinese market because there’ve already been several successful IPs (intellectual property) that have been released. But with ‘Green Book,’ it was very interesting to see how well it would be received by the Chinese audience.”

The solution was to dig deep into identifying target demographics and learn about ways to appeal to a more diverse set of viewers.

“Chinese audiences are getting more sophisticated,” says Zhang. “There are so many ways to deliver a great message that we thought the timing was right to introduce a movie like ‘Green Book’ to big screens in China. Think about the impact of films narrating this type of topic—great films like ‘Hidden Figures,’ ‘Moonlight,’ ‘The Help’—I mean, none of them made it onto the big screens in [mainland] China.”

Zhang believes that while the subject matter may be historically and culturally removed from Chinese audiences, there are a lot of common universal values that resonate throughout the film. “It’s based on the greater universal discussion of how different people—whether it’s differences in skin color, background or religion—can learn to understand, grow and embrace one another,” says Zhang.

"Chinese audiences are getting more sophisticated. There are so many ways to deliver a great message that we thought the timing was right to introduce a movie like ‘Green Book’ to big screens in China."

-Wei Zhang

Wei Zhang standing in front of Green Book poster in Chinese
Wei Zhang, president of Alibaba Pictures

In terms of promoting the movie, data analysis has been key. “Our strategy is shaped from our data analysis,” says Zhang. “It’s about trying to understand the common traits in our target audience and what entertainment platforms they’re engaged on. There are certain traits that we can tap into in analyzing potential audiences too.”

With marketing tools like Beacon, which gathers data related to the film to provide feedback on the movie, Alibaba Pictures is taking a very calculated risk in bringing “Green Book” to China. “There are many different demographics that could enjoy this movie, from fans of critically acclaimed films and music lovers, to fans of these actors themselves, we made sure to do our homework when it came to research,” says Zhang. Alibaba Pictures also utilized qualitative research by inviting experts and opinion leaders from the entertainment industry to provide feedback through advance screenings.

“The qualitative side allowed us to see what aspects of the movie might attract people to the theater, whether or not they would recommend the film to their friends, and what aspect they really enjoyed,” says Zhang. “Their input really helped formulate our marketing strategy, and we’ve relied heavily on our unique online and offline tools to gather data and exercise effective marketing.”

According to China’s leading ticketing app, Maoyan, “Green Book” has a high audience score rating of 9.6/10 and continues to generate viral buzz around the country.

Future releases to anticipate from Alibaba Pictures

From “Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year” to “On the Basis of Sex,” Alibaba Pictures has supported a wide range of movies and plans to introduce socially and culturally relevant films to the world. “You know how we (Alibaba Pictures) love to bring new things to China,” shares Zhang. “My hope is to bring these stories to the big screen and enrich people’s theatrical experience. Of course, you can enjoy the big fantastical blockbusters with their visual and sound effects, but ‘Green Book’ is a very deep movie. It’s one that you can watch with some of your best friends and discuss it after the movie is over.”

Green Book posters in Chinese
“Green Book” continues to generate viral buzz across China
“Of course, you can enjoy the big fantastical blockbusters with their visual and sound effects, but ‘Green Book’ is a very deep movie.”

-Wei Zhang

Other movies that are in the pipeline include a full-length animation film called “UglyDolls,” scheduled for release in May, and “A Dog’s Journey” that will launch around the same time. “Not to give away too much about ‘A Dog’s Journey,’ but I’m sure you’ll cry while watching this movie—but don’t worry, it’s not a devastating film,” says Zhang playfully.

“The Wandering Earth,” which was co-financed by Alibaba Pictures, raked in more than $440 million over its first 10 days after hitting theaters in China on Feb 2. China’s first blockbuster science-fiction film has already turned into one of the biggest global films in 2019, and, now that Netflix has purchased the streaming rights, it could become an even greater hit. Analysts forecast that ticket sales of the film alone could gross more than 5 billion yuan. “If you haven’t seen it yet, you must,” says Zhang enthusiastically. “It’s visually spectacular, and the story will keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s really well-made, and as a Chinese company that’s made its mark internationally, we are so proud to be involved in ‘The Wandering Earth,’ a Chinese sci-fi, become an international success.”

Alibaba Pictures has so far hit the ground running in 2019 and will continue to invest in movies that are socially and culturally relevant. With “Green Book,” Zhang believes that “it could become one of those films that resonates with someone. It may bring back personal memories or evoke a special feeling in your heart. ‘Green Book’ is going to be one of those classic movies that people will talk about for years.”

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