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Why “Iron Man” Robert Downey Jr. is on Sina Weibo but not Twitter

U.S. actor Robert Downey Jr. tries out "bingtanghulu," a traditional Chinese snack, during a world premiere event of his new movie "Iron Man 3" at a Beijing hotel Saturday, April 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Andy Wong
AP Photo/Andy Wong
Nibbling on bingtanghulu: the offline way of building a Chinese fanbase.
  • Gwynn Guilford
By Gwynn Guilford


ChinaPublished This article is more than 2 years old.

Iron Man 3 opens today in North America, but it’s been playing in Chinese theaters since the May Day holiday and has already made a killing, bringing in a record-breaking $21.2 million on its first day alone.

And it’s not just records: Marvel and its Chinese partner, DMG, are setting new standards for foreign movies looking to earn government clearance in China. To curry favor, the company added four minutes of footage just for the mainland, including throwaway parts for Chinese A-list actors Fan Bingbing and Wang Xueqi, and a ham-handed milk drink product placement.

Also new is the aggressive outreach to Chinese audiences by Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr. Not only did he visit China for the first time in his life to talk up the film, but Downey also set up a personal account on Sina Weibo:

Mind you, Downey doesn’t even have a Twitter account (or if he does, he doesn’t use it). He does use his Weibo account, however.

His account was opened on April 24, and 10 minutes after a quick “Hello China” post, Downey offered his condolences to earthquake victims, a post that was forwarded more than 11,500 times. And though he doesn’t post often, he knows how to play to the crowd. “People who know me back in America know that I’m very interested in all things Chinese,” he wrote the other day.

On one hand, Downey’s Weibo pander is of a piece with the aggressive marketing blitz in China mounted by Marvel and DMG, in which Downey figured heavily. But his online outreach also an increasingly common way for Western stars to connect with Chinese audiences, as this excellent Reuters piece highlights. The article flags marketing company China Branding Group, which runs Fanstang, a service that manages Weibo and other Chinese social media sites for Western celebs, including Downey.

Though Fanstang—which combines “fans” with the Chinese word “tang,” meaning “hall”—didn’t respond to a request for comment, the service appears to translate into Chinese whatever their customers write in English. For instance, the Weibo accounts of Ian Somerhalder, star of Vampire Diaries, and basketballer Dwyane Wade simply translate what the stars post on Twitter.

Obviously, neither Somerhalder nor Wade need to sell movie tickets in China. In fact, the vast majority of Fanstang’s foreign luminary Weibo customers aren’t huge movie stars like Downey. That’s why it will be interesting to see if Downey’s Weibo persona keeps up its awkward flattery of traditional Chinese culture after Iron Man 3 leaves the screens. We’re already seeing studios rewriting whole plotlines to please the Chinese government and the country’s audiences. To studios increasingly looking to China to drive revenue, actors with a ready-made Chinese fanbase will be all the more valuable.

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