Right after Nina Dobrev tweeted a photo of her kissing a puppy, the same picture showed up on Weibo, China's twitter-like service, with its caption translated into Chinese. "I wish I were the doggy," one micro-blogger commented on the photo, which was already reposted more than 300 times on Weibo.
Dobrev is not the first, or the most popular western celebrity on Chinese social media. But the Canadian actress, known for her role as Elena Gilbert on The CW television drama The Vampire Diaries, has gained her 290,000 Chinese followers through perhaps an unintended channel-that is, her show is pirated.
And the audience is big-when Dobrev showed up in Shanghai in December to help promote a shopping mall's anniversary celebration, thousands of fans packed all four floors, screaming at the top of their voice as the 24-year-old actress said, "I love you" in Chinese.
"It's shocking," said Larry Namer, co-founder of cable and satellite network E! Entertainment Television and Metan Development Group, a China-focused programing company. When he launched his Mandarin show Hello Hollywood a few years ago, the recognition American TV stars received in China completely caught him off-guard. "Somebody like Wentworth Miller would be as big in China as Brad Pitt would be."
Miller, who had appeared in several Chinese commercials and talk shows, was the leading role in Prison Break, a Fox drama series that went viral in China a few years ago. Following that phenomenon, more American TV celebrities have tapped into the China market, where new episodes of the hottest shows are available online immediately after they've aired in the U.S.
Of course the popularity of pirated shows in China is not lost on Western studios and producers. Jonathan Taplin, a film producer and a professor of international communication at University of Southern California believes piracy can still be "destructive to the overall ecology of TV production."
"American companies spend up to $2 million per episode of a TV show. Part of that calculation is that they will receive foreign licensing fees from countries that exhibit the show," Taplin said. "Obviously if the only exhibition in China is on pirate sites (often financed by Chinese advertisers) then the economics don't work for the U.S. producer."
The pirated shows, ad-free, usually come with delicate subtitles, done by hard-core volunteers, who also add in occasional headnotes to explain references to American culture and history. Thanks to their effort, stars like Johnny Galecki from The Big Bang Theory and Maggie Q from Nakita are cheered by tens of thousands of fans on Weibo.
"In the U.S. you got to have a Facebook or Twitter; in China it's the same thing, only bigger," said Namer, who also uses Weibo frequently. So not surprisingly branding companies are filling the gap by creating social media campaigns in China for western celebrities.
Fanstang, the company that represents Nina Dobrev, is one of the successful pioneers. Owned by a firm called China Branding Group, its Weibo portfolio includes a variety of American celebrities, ranging from NBA star Dwyane Wade to Hollywood socialite Paris Hilton. The company declined to comment, but according to one of its public relation officers in Shanghai, Fanstang has introduced more than 100 western stars to Weibo since its debut last summer. With the help of its well-connected partners in Hollywood, she thinks the firms is going to grow even more.
"Typically they'll have a relationship directly with the celebrity or his or her management team…and work collaboratively on an overall campaign," said Namer, who works with a similar marketing firm called Mingyian. "There's a lot of sponsorship money, there's a lot of appearance money," he said. "There's a real business reason for why you want to start building your image in China now."
For TV stars, their surprising popularity in China could also mean a higher chance to be cast in films, Namer said. According to a recent report by Motion Picture Association of America, China has surpassed Japan as the second-largest box office market in the world. Last year, more than half of all the country's box office receipts went to foreign films, after the government permitted more Hollywood blockbusters to be released locally, the state-run newspaper People's Daily reported.
Besides the benefits they have brought to the actors and actresses, pirated shows also serve as free samples for the American TV industry, said Jerry Kirkpatrick, an emeritus professor of international business and marketing at California State Polytechnic University. "This expands the audience and builds loyalty," said Kirkpatrick, who believes pirated products can be utilized as marketing tools. "If the producers sit idly by and complain about the pirates, they will be defaulting on their responsibility as marketers."
Although licensing shows on Chinese TV is tricky, with tight restrictions on quantities and airtime slots, some Internet companies are picking up the slack. Having spotted the large fan base of American television, websites like Sohu and Youku, both listed on NASDQ, have introduced dozens of shows the in the past few months, featuring popular shows like Homeland, The Big Bang Theory and House of Cards. And the licensing fees are actually "quite reasonable," as Sohu's copyrights director Ma Ke told The Beijing News recently. With the market growing bigger and bigger, Ma said, importers are now making bets on newly released shows, in hopes of attracting viewers before the pirated sites do.
But Metan Development Group's Larry Namer sees a different opportunity out of the trend. His company, Metan Development Group, has bought the rights from Warner Brothers last year to develop a Chinese version of Gossip Girl, another teen drama that became hugely popular in China, though this time without the need for piracy.
"The audience taste is different, the cultural background is different. You got to localize it," Namer said. "That's why I insisted that this company be China centric."
(The author is a Reuters contributor) (Editing by John Peabody, Ryan McCarthy and Brian Tracey)