Thursday, November 08, 2007

Starbucks, PepsiCo Bring 'Subopera' to Shanghai

By James T. Areddy
A feel-good film about a girl from the Chinese countryside who moves to the big city to discover love, blogging and Starbucks will premier this month in an unusual venue: Shanghai's subway.

"A Sunny Day," is scheduled to play exclusively on thousands of high-tech flat screen monitors on Shanghai's subway cars and station platforms.

[Subway]
Girl meets boy and Starbucks in 'A Sunny Day,' to be shown in installments

Tailored for an audience of 2.2 million who cram onto China's biggest underground railway each day, the full-length feature film will be shown in daily segments of a few minutes each over 40 weekdays, soap-opera style. Subtitles in Chinese will help commuters follow the dialogue over the subway noise, and multiple daily rebroadcasts and tie-ins on the Internet are designed to ensure no one misses any of the cliffhangers.

Instead of an ordinary film, the so-called "subopera" is a blend of drama and advertising. A venture between Starbucks Coffee Co. and PepsiCo Inc. financed and helped produce the drama as part of a campaign that kicks off today in Shanghai to introduce bottled frappuccino drinks to the Chinese market.

"It's quite unique and demonstrates a departure from conventional marketing," says Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman. The coffee company hasn't traditionally advertised, Mr. Schultz says, adding that a soap opera can be effective since it creates "real entertainment for our customers and along the way there is a complementary message." PepsiCo, which will bottle and distribute the Starbucks-branded drinks, referred questions to Starbucks

The film has a clear commercial bent. In some shots, the mermaid from the Starbucks logo gets as much face-time as the movie's big turnstile draw, Huang Xiao Ming, a 29-year-old pop star who is so well known he is sometimes called China's Justin Timberlake.

Still, "A Sunny Day" is no infomercial. Mr. Huang's character "CC" is a struggling musician who strums his guitar for coins in the subway, and falls for big-hearted Sunny, who is trying to get over the death of a boyfriend and fit into a new job.

During the shooting on a recent Sunday, as a gaggle of teenage women sneaked onto the set, Mr. Huang described the subway a "fashionable, very modern" venue that will appeal to a trendy audience.

Subways around the world have long featured visual distractions. A century ago, platforms were showcases for art, like the swank metro stations in Paris. In the 1970s, spray paint enlivened the dank and dangerous New York subway, and in the 1980s, the late Keith Haring helped make graffiti a respected art form with projects like "Studio in the Subway."

This year, the Berlin subway's 1.5 million daily passengers were the judges in a weeklong festival of 90-second, silent films called "Going Underground."

Advertisers are also pressing beneath the streets. Sidetrack Technologies Inc. of Winnipeg and New York-based Submedia LLC place light-board advertising in subway tunnels in several cities around the world, giving riders the motion-picture like effect of seeing a flipbook.

China's $20 billion advertising industry is increasingly adopting the global trend toward marketing disguised as entertainment. In addition to Hollywood-style product placements in TV shows and movies, a rapidly expanding segment is directed at an emerging middle class during the workday hours with slickly crafted TV-style ads in taxis, airplanes and even elevators.

Advertising beats boredom, says industry pioneer Jason Jiang, chairman and founder of Focus Media Holding Ltd., a Shanghai company that puts TV ads into elevators.

[Subway]
Shanghai commuters watch an NFL promotion on monitors in the subway.

Shanghai's 12-year-old underground has a network of 4,000 flat-screen monitors designed as an emergency broadcasting network. But mostly, the screens show information, from train arrival times to short clips of soccer highlights, runway models, entertainment news and advertising. Marketers pay to run ads or programs, but until now, they have been very short, lasting about a minute. Terms for "A Sunny Day" have not been disclosed.

The system works like a high-tech closed-circuit TV network, and includes frequently updated news, train information and other messages. Each time a subway train pulls into one of Shanghai's 95 stations, new video updates are instantly relayed by Wi-Fi to an on-board server that broadcasts them to monitors in the cars. A closely held Shanghai company, Digital Media Group Co., developed the subway broadcasting system and runs it in several Chinese cities, typically in partnership with the local transit authority.

In one current campaign, a National Football League "two minute drill" offers game highlights and a quiz that can be answered using mobile phones messages. In another subway promotion, J.D. Power and Associates ran automobile quality ratings.

The multimillion-dollar production of "A Sunny Day" is the brainchild of Thomas G. Tsao, a co-founder of Shanghai venture capital firm Gobi Partners Inc., which owns a chunk of DMG.

Once he sold his "subopera" idea to Starbucks and Pepsi, their marketing people re-tuned the original storyline, toning down sexiness and fitting in mostly subtle Starbucks placements. "Everything we did was very natural to the story," Mr. Tsao says.

Sunny, played by the relatively unknown Liao Jun Jia , moves to the city after her boyfriend dies. During her subway commute, she often does good deeds. Soon, Mr. Huang's character, CC, spots Sunny in a Starbucks and has the barista deliver a bottled drink to her table. As their romance blossoms, an old girlfriend of Mr. Huang's enters the picture -- and bangs shoulders with Sunny.

On the set, no one forgets the sponsor. During the filming one day, just as the crew went silent to start shooting a scene, Mr. Huang noticed that he didn't have a cup in front of him and abruptly shouted: "MY coffee?" A production assistant rushed a Starbucks mug in front of him, and the director yelled ACTION!"

The actors say that to connect with an audience that will be watching on small screens in a swaying subway, they kept dialogue and movement to a minimum. In one shot, Sunny slowly twists a bottle filled with water and guppies - to reveal the Starbucks "Mocha" label.

"It's a new medium," says Director John Xiao Qi. A film with strong elements of a commercial isn't a compromise, he reasons, as "It's easier for the audience to accept the message because of the setting."

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