Making (M)Time in China

Disney deal latest for growing site

MTime, a Beijing-based movie review and social networking Web site, has begun to help Disney promote its Hollywood films to China's booming online population, soon to be the largest in the world.

MTime CEO Kelvin Hou said that within 14 months of launching the self-funded company, its registered users are approaching the 1 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 shows that 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).

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 semiprofessional film bloggers like the late Kafka Lu, a well-known independent film critic and adviser to the Shanghai International Film Festival.

"Writers began churning out reviews once we gave them the collective platform," Hou said. "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 Disney became convinced of the vitality of the MTime community when it saw the mushrooming activity on dedicated MTime pages for such films as "Cars," "The Guardian" and its first made-in-China animated film, "The Secret of the Magic Gourd."

"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. He added that he doesn't have to charge for the site because giving average Chinese a well-organized platform simply to talk about films has produced value all by itself.

Hou credits WMA's Shanghai representative, Grace Chen, with helping him to find his way to Disney. He declined to reveal the value of the deal because he hopes to conclude similar promotion deals with other Hollywood studios when he visits Los Angeles after AFM.

Hou intends to continue developing new MTime features, including a movie theater search as well as guides on where to buy legal DVDs in China's biggest cities and how to tell a real one 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 1920s, Hou said.