BEIJING — As one of the most bankable stars on the planet,
But he was jumping through press hoops this week as he made his first trip to China to sell moviegoers on his new sci-fi film, "Transcendence," which opens here April 18.
During a whirlwind 48-hour publicity tour, he showed off his I-Ching inspired tattoo, answered questions about Chinese food and taped a special segment of the variety program "Chinese Dream Show" for Zhejiang TV, attempting calligraphy with a giant brush and picking up an electric guitar to perform with Taiwanese musician David Tao — all in a single day.
With the mainland movie market continuing to soar, Beijing looks to be replacing Tokyo and Hong Kong as the must-visit stop on publicity tours for big-budget Hollywood films.
Mainland China's box office rose 33% in the first quarter to $1.13 billion, Shanghai film consulting firm Artisan Gateway said Tuesday. That's more than the take for all of 2009, and second in the world only to the U.S.
"With some Hollywood films producing higher grosses at the China box office than in the U.S. domestic market, major studios' focus on creating awareness and ticket-buying excitement for its films has never been higher," Artisan Gateway President Rance Pow said of the ramped-up publicity efforts. "Also, with Chinese language film production and performance on the rise, wooing Chinese film patrons to cinemas becomes a competitive issue."
Another factor driving more appearances by Hollywood stars: Chinese investment in American films. Beijing company DMG Entertainment co-produced "Transcendence" along with Alcon Entertainment, and hence took an active role in its publicity campaign.
Imported movies made a strong showing in China in the first quarter, earning $419 million — surging 62% over the same period in 2013, Artisan said. Imported movies also raised their market share, from about 30% to 37%, despite continuing barriers imposed by the Chinese government, which wants to protect and nurture the local film industry.
But as the Chinese industry gets stronger, there is also more choice at the multiplex, and much of the audience growth is coming in smaller cities, where moviegoers are less sophisticated and may prefer local titles to foreign ones.
"The only way for studios to deal with this adversity is to do better promotion, to work harder to win the audience," said Wu Renchu, who runs a popular movie blog on the Chinese film site Mtime.com. "It's not enough to put up posters in second- and third-tier cities and expect people to come."
Robert Cain, a producer and film consultant who specializes in the Chinese market, noted that foreign studios and producers are adding staff on the ground and supplementing the efforts of their Chinese distributors with their own marketing efforts.
"They're spending a lot more than they would have even a year ago," he said. "A great example of that last year was when Legendary East cranked up marketing and did a big push for 'Pacific Rim' and it ended up earning more in China than the U.S."
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" was the top non-Chinese film in the first quarter, followed by "Need for Speed," which has now earned $55.2 million in China, about $17 million more than its U.S. and Canada tally. Universal's "Despicable Me 2," the "Robocop" reboot and Disney's "Frozen" rounded out the top five imported titles.
But overall, the top spots went to Chinese films. Leading the pack were "The Monkey King" and "Dad, Where Are We Going?" which landed prime release slots over the Chinese New Year holiday that began in late January.
In total, Chinese films accounted for $709 million of box-office receipts in the first quarter, up 22% from a year earlier.
Animated fare, both made in China and from abroad, is off to a strong start in 2014, though "The Lego Movie," the top performing film of the year in the U.S. and worldwide, has not opened here yet.
Overall, Cain expects the Chinese box office to reach $4.8 billion this year, up from about $3.6 billion in 2013.
Migrant workers in big cities and new moviegoers in smaller cities are less accepting of abstract or complicated foreign films, Wu added, citing
Perhaps in an attempt to avoid such notions about "Transcendence," the TV special Depp taped with numerous Chinese celebrities took pains to explain the film's title and plot, which revolves around an artificial intelligence researcher whose brain is uploaded to a computer after he's attacked by anti-tech radicals.
"We make the movies we produce, and the stars in them, relevant to Chinese audiences," said Dan Mintz, chief executive of DMG. "That means digging deeper to find real connections."
Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.