Netflix’s ‘Baggio’ Film to Play in China, Tap Into World Cup Fever (EXCLUSIVE)

Team China is not competing at the soccer World Cup in Qatar, but that has done little to stop Chinese fans – and firms – from getting involved. Now a soccer-related movie is set to reach Middle Kingdom screens, just a few days ahead of Sunday’s final in the Chinese-built Lusail Stadium.

Indie aggregator, Leeding Media, has set a Wednesday release date for feature film “Baggio: The Divine Ponytail” in partnership with Netflix and its Italian producer Fabula Pictures.

The sports drama tells the inspiring story of Italy’s greatest football legend Roberto Baggio as he rises from humble origins to the pinnacle of success in the sport. After a shattering moment of self-doubt leading to Italy’s defeat at the 1994 World Cup, Baggio must learn to overcome his demons and rediscover his love of football, family and friends, and of life.

The film will initially launch on streaming platforms Bilibili and the Alibaba-owned Youku in time to catch the current football fever. Later, Mango TV and other streamers will give it another game.

“Baggio’s name recognition is huge in China, especially among the 20 to 40 year-old age group. And over the next few months we are working with the Italian Embassy in China to put on several invitation-only, in-person screenings and Q&A sessions,” said David U. Lee, Leeding Media’s founder and CEO, who will also take an executive producer credit.

The censorship process and the separate system of applying for streaming release permits is getting no easier or quicker – Leeding Media acquired the China rights to the film in December last year, Netflix has in it the rest of the world – but Lee says he sees “Baggio” as a step towards diversifying beyond U.S. content and to bring more European and Latin American films into China.

Since 2021, the company has secured release permits and distributed 35 films in the Chinese marketplace including Bruce Willis-starring “Breach,” Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” and another Netflix original production 2021 feature “Outside the Wire,” starring Anthony Mackie and directed by Mikael Hafstrom.

Next up for the company is U.S.-Indian co-production “Skater Girl,” in which a rural girl achieves competitive level in skateboarding.

Keeping the sports theme going may be a strong play for entertainment companies trying to penetrate the currently idiosyncratic Chinese market.

The ongoing World Cup matches are widely followed on six different channels in China, including the state-controlled China Central TV. Two others, Migu (a subsidiary of China Telecom) and Douyin (the Chinese sister company of TikTok) are enabling viewers to watch on VR headsets.

Chinese consumer brands are calculated to have spent $1.4 billion on World Cup sponsorship. Leaders among them include Wanda (property, shopping malls), Vivo (phones), Hisense (electronics) and Mengniu (dairy products) which have been using the tournament for campaign activation as if the national team were fully present.

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