"I cried three times through the entire movie and when Allison finally 'sees' Frank in the mirror, I completely lost it!… I want to go to Seattle, and then to New York!"
That reaction of a Weibo user to seeing the new blockbuster Chinese rom-com Finding Mr. Right is not uncommon. It's the kind of reaction that led Chinese tourism site tuniu.com to find in a recent survey that inquiries about Seattle by Chinese tourists jumped 120 percent in the last week of March, when the film debuted.
Seattle isn't letting the opportunity go to waste either, with its China-side marketing team leveraging the film's huge popularity to drive interest from a group that has become the world's most lucrative tourism demographic. A demographic that is increasingly taking its cues from popular movies, but only those that can emotionally connect.
"In terms of media and promotion, we certainly reference the movie whenever suitable," said Alexander Glos, CEO of the i2i Group, in a conversation with brandchannel about the film and opportunity for Visit Seattle. The i2i Group is the official representative in China for Seattle Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
There are of course copyright restrictions that limit how much i2i can use the film, but Glos said, "We certainly talk about it, it's highlighted in most of our promotional material and information that goes out, short of using their images, at the moment it's one of the most effective drivers for outbound Chinese tourism to Seattle and Washington state." Glos added that his office has made tickets to the film available for media and travel agents.
Leveraging China's movie-mad populace to travel to film locations is not new, but the increased wealth of the nation is making the concept much more attractive. In 2012 China had already become Thailand's top source of tourists. But then the Thailand-set comedy Lost in Thailand debuted in late 2012 and went on to become China's highest grossing film ever. The first months of 2013 have subsequently seen a nearly 100 percent increase in Chinese visiting Thailand.
Meanwhile, more than one tourism agency in Japan has leveraged China's 2008 rom-com blockbuster If You Are the One (非诚勿扰) to attract Chinese tourists to the northern island of Hokkaido, where the film is set. "China's Hawaii" Hainan Island similarly reaped the benefits as the location of the film's sequel, If You Are The One 2.
Five years ago, fewer than 2,500 Chinese tourists were visiting Seattle each year. Last year, Seattle saw 20 percent of its visitors come from abroad, and of that, a quarter were Chinese. Seattle and Washington state welcomed around 65,000 Chinese tourists last year, landing it on the short list of top US destinations for Chinese travelers.
For Seattle, Glos says the fundamental Chinese tourist has changed from the business delegation of old. "Today, most of the outbound travel from China to Seattle is independent travelers, traveling on their own, organizing their own flights, renting cars, traveling on independent itinerary, arriving on Saturday, departing the next Sunday, not really knowing where they're going to go in between."
But it's not just a question of quantity, but also (economic) quality. Chinese tourists bring a bang-for-the-buck factor. Not only did 40 percent more Chinese travel abroad last year than in 2011, but they spent, on average, around $7,000. That's more than any other tourist group, including former category leaders Americans and Germans. That money is largely spent on shopping. An undertaking Gos said Seattle is perfectly positioned to take advantage of that because it is an arrival and departure gateway to the US for Chinese travelers. "Chinese will do the bulk of their shopping in the last 48 hours before departure, which is obviously easier for them, don't want to lug all of those goodies around in your suitcase while traveling throughout United States."
Lucky for Seattle, Finding Mr. Right features numerous scenes where the young female star—popular actress Wei Tang—galavants around Seattle's finest shopping establishments buying up everything from luxury shoes to high-end seafood. In fact, Wei Tang may be the unofficial Chinese ambassador for Seattle. In the 2010 South Korean-US co-produced, English language film Late Autumn, Wei appeared as a paroled prisoner who falls for a Korean man in Seattle. While that film is unknown in the US, it set box office records when it was released in China in early 2012, just a year before the release of Wei's Finding Mr. Right. Gos notes that young, late 20s females like Wei are exactly Seattle's target demographic.
One finer detail worth noting is that the English title of the film, Finding Mr. Right, is not by any means a translation of the film's Chinese title. The title 北京遇上西雅图more literally translates to "When Beijing Met Seattle." It's significant because in all of the online posts and news about the movie, "Seattle" is mentioned, further increasing its profile.
One suitable way to reference the movie is of course on social media. Seattle's Weibo account recently called the film a "wonderful cross-border romance" and gratulated it on reaching the 400 million RMB box office mark. The film has since cracked 470 million RMB ($75.6 million), beating GI Joe: Retaliation for the top spot and becoming the tenth highest-grossing Chinese film of all time.
The city's tourism authority is leveraging the film but one reason it might not be rushing to draw too many specific connections between the film and Seattle is the tricky little fact that Finding Mr. Right was filmed in Vancouver. Some Chinese fans have commented on this fact on social media, especially those who noted familiar Vancouver landmarks in some scenes and a few declaring an interest in exploring Vancouver's Mr. Right instead of Seattle's. For it's part though, Vancouver has no plans to rain on Seattle's (likely already rainy) parade.
"We don’t anticipate the film will increase visitation from China as viewers likely won’t be aware it’s Vancouver they’re looking at (as opposed to Seattle) unless this is mentioned in the credits," Sonu Purhar, Travel Media Relations Specialist for Tourism Vancouver, told brandchannel in an email. "That being said, we’ve worked with a number of film crews from China and are always happy to welcome them to our city and help them showcase Vancouver in their productions."
And if Chinese filmmakers aren't going to place a city, the city can place itself. Last year, The Australian Tourism Commission funded the production of the romantic miniseries Heartbeat Love (再一次心跳), featuring two of China's favorite stars. The tale of young romance between two Taiwanese youth in Australia generated tens of millions of views and loads of interest in visiting the nation.
Both Thailand and Seattle have bested big budget Hollywood rivals. This should serve as a wake up call to any in Hollywood confident that it can force feed China a steady diet of the same old American-focused blockbusters with maybe Fan Bingbing thrown in for 20 seconds (i.e. Iron Man 3). This reality was thrown into relief most astutely by Chinafilmbiz.com's Robert Cain, who wrote, "The huge box office bonanza that Hollywood movies enjoyed a year ago in China is now looking more and more like a cruel head fake. For 23 straight weeks in 2012 Hollywood films reigned at the top of China’s box office. But their longest streak this year is 2 weeks on top, and they’ve placed first in only 3 of the past 16 weeks… Meanwhile, Chinese language films are hot. Scorching hot."
Lost in Thailand, Finding Mr. Right and If You Are The One were all huge hit, low budget films in China. But they had something else in common: Plots tailored to Chinese culture. Mr. Right's plot involves birth tourism, mistress culture and blind luxury consumerism, all part of China's zeitgeist. Lost in Thailand speaks to self-destructive workplace ambition and divorce, both part of the nation's current cultural growing pains. All three share in common the idea of finding one's true self outside of China, in a new and mysterious place.
So it's no surprise that it's the features off these films that Chinese audiences most want to associate with and to emotionally connect with. Food for thought for all those US convention and visitors bureaus out there wondering how to attract the attention—and pocketbooks—of all those Chinese tourists.