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MTime, a Beijing-based movie review and social networking Web site, has begun to help the Walt Disney Co. promote their films to China’s booming online population, soon to be the largest in the world.
MTime CEO Kelvin Hou told The Hollywood Reporter that within 14 months of launching the self-funded company, its registered users are approaching the one million mark.
Calling it a combination of MySpace, Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB and Fandango, Hou said he took a risk on the “build it and they will come” business model and it seems to have worked.
Web tracking service Alexa.com shows Mtime’s hits now surpass the combined visitors to the movie pages of China’s top three Web portals — the New York-listed Sina, Sohu and Netease, to which MTime provides branded movie reviews aggregated from its users and edited by in-house editors. (Mtime also provides the same branded content to MSN’s Chinese-language movie pages).
Always a movie fan, Hou said he sensed a particular intensity in Chinese people’s conversations about movies. Censorship and strict market restrictions have long driven film fans in China to watch movies clandestinely — on pirated discs and over the Internet. (Chinese law limits the number of imported films that can show on China’s big screen to 20 each year).
China’s state-run press and carefully monitored media on the Internet has never fostered a regular culture of independent minded movie critics.
Soon after founding MTime, film professionals, fans and average moviegoers looking for trivia (and soon, listings) began to flock to the site to read semi-professional film bloggers such as the late Kafka Lu, a well-known independent film critic and advisor to the Shanghai Film Festival.
“Writers began churning out reviews once we gave them the collective platform. Some wrote about Japanese films, some about cult films. The idea was simply to give newcomers to the site a place to find the like-minded,” Hou said.
Hou said that, at first, Disney doubted the vitality of the MTime community, but was convinced after seeing the mushrooming activity on dedicated MTime pages for such films as “Cars,” “The Guardian” and its first made-in-China animated film, “Secret of the Magic Gourd.”
Hou’s business experience also no doubt helped. Hou left China right after the student democracy upheaval in Beijing in 1989. After earning a master’s degree in education at San Jose State, Hou rose at Microsoft to become the software giant’s California corporate sales director. By 1999, Hou was deputy general manager for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
By 2002, Hou had convinced China’s top four personal computer makers to install legal copies of Windows, helping to triple the system’s sales in the market despite the ease with which pirates could make perfect copies.
In 2004, Hou quit Microsoft with a few friends to found MTime. “If there is one upside for piracy over the past 10 years in China, it is that Chinese have been exposed to a wide variety of films,” Hou said with a trace of irony and a smile. He says he doesn’t have to charge for the site because giving average Chinese a well-organized platform to talk about films has produced value in and of itself.
Hou credits WMA’s Shanghai representative Grace Chen with helping him find his way to Disney in several visits back and forth from Beijing to Hollywood. He would not reveal the value of the deal because he hopes to conclude similar pacts with other studios when he visits Los Angeles in mid-November.
Hou intends to keep developing such new MTime features as an online movie theater search, a guide to legal DVD outlets in China’s biggest cities and another on how to tell a real DVD from a fake. The company has nearly completed a database of every film made in China since 1905 and every movie screened there since the ’20s, Hou said.
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