To research China, a Hollywood firm taps USC students

In a small office in Hollywood, three USC students scan social media sites to see what’s trending.

They’re looking not at Facebook or Twitter, but at Chinese websites such as Sina Weibo, Youku, Renren and Qzone.

The hot topics: soccer star Didier Drogba’s move from London’s Chelsea club to Shanghai’s Shenhua and the latest news on “Iron Man 3,” the upcoming U.S.-China co-production starring Robert Downey Jr.

“People love Iron Man in China very much,” Cecilia Wu, a 20-year-old native of China and student at USC’s Marshall School of Business. “He’s a hero.”


During their summer break, Wu and two other USC students — one Chinese, the other Chinese American — offered their insights as interns at the Cimarron Group, one of Hollywood’s oldest entertainment marketing companies.

Cimarron, which creates movie trailers and TV spots as well as print and digital ad campaigns for such films as “The Dark Knight Rises,” hopes the students will eventually help the company with its expansion into China, which started recently with the opening of an office in Beijing.

“It helps my staff become more familiar with the cultural differences between U.S. and China. And when these internships are over, if we’re satisfied with them, we’re going to offer [the students] a job to work with us in China,” Cimarron Chief Executive Bob Farina said. “It’s a good opportunity for us to find really good talent, to train them in the way we do things.”

Cimarron’s internship program — one of the first of its kind in the movie industry — highlights the growing two-way traffic between Hollywood and China.


China, which recently surpassed Japan as the second-largest movie market outside the U.S., has taken steps to ease restrictions on the number of foreign films it allows into the country each year under a revenue-sharing agreement.

DreamWorks Animation and Walt Disney Studios have unveiled joint venture plans to build animation partnerships in China. Raleigh Studios in Hollywood recently was tapped to manage Wuxi, a sprawling facility outside of Shanghai that will be a hub for China-U.S. productions. High-profile movies set to shoot in China include Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man 3" and Legendary Pictures’ “The Great Wall.”

And China’s biggest entertainment company, Dalian Wanda Group, just completed its $2.6-billion acquisition of AMC Entertainment, America’s second-largest theater chain.

Despite the explosive growth in China’s theater industry and growing demand for entertainment, the country has little experience with Hollywood-style movie marketing — a vacuum that creates new opportunities for companies such as Cimarron.


“We have a number of clients already there and we expect that to grow,” Farina said.

Cimarron’s clients include MGM Grand; Cirque du Soleil; the consumer products division of 20th Century Fox; and Village Roadshow, producer of “Man of Tai Chi,” an upcoming Chinese co-production starring and directed by Keanu Reeves.

“As the number of theaters increases and the number of movies allowed into China increases, there will be a need for movie marketing,” Farina said.

Cimarron built some goodwill with the Chinese government when it was commissioned to produce a 2010 TV documentary celebrating cultural exchanges between China and Singapore, which Cimarron said was seen by more than 400 million people worldwide. The company also has an office in Singapore.


Its partnership with USC began last year, when it gave a tour to a group of visiting Chinese business school students. USC proposed the internship with Cimarron as part of a broader effort to create opportunities for both students and local companies looking to expand in China and other foreign markets, said Dick Drobnick, director of the Center for International Business Education and Research at USC’s Marshall School of Business.

“We were talking about ways to create synergies between [Cimarron] and what we do at the business school, and this was the lowest-hanging fruit,” Drobnick said. “The California business community has a huge potential asset that most of them never use: the international students coming into UCLA and USC.”

Cimarron executives thought the students (who were unpaid but received stipends) could help them better understand social media sites in China that are crucial to marketing movies.

The students were assigned to prepare a detailed market research report about the most popular social media sites in China — which get the most traffic, whom they cater to and what topics are most popular.


“They really gave us valuable insights into how social media works in China so we can understand more of the nuances,” said Mike Tankel, chief innovation officer for Cimarron. “They allowed us to get a sense of how popular culture is translated and how it’s being talked about.”