BEIJING — Unlike the film business in the West, the Chinese biz is completely reliant on box office, with no coin generated by ancillary sales.

That’s one of the reasons Chinese shingles are spending more and more money on marketing — sometimes more than the cost of the film itself — to try to earn their piece of a box office pie that was worth more than $2 billion last year, and is on track to top $3 billion this year.

For foreign studios, marketing in China is a different story. Since China has an import quota on foreign films, and the films go through China Film Group, Hollywood spending has traditionally been very low. Auds are already predisposed to want to see well-known Western franchises such as “Harry Potter” and “Transformers,” whereas Chinese movies, with a few exceptions, tend to start from scratch as far as promotion is concerned. Moreover, China is a large country, and if a local movie wants to reach prospective moviegoers nationwide, it needs P&A spending that touches on regional, provincial and national media platforms.

A 30 million yuan ($4.7 million) marketing campaign basically guarantees coverage on all formats, including TV, Internet, billboards, transportation and all the cinema chains in main cities, says producer An Xiaofen, prexy of Desen Intl. Media, which was involved in producing and distributing local blockbusters “Wu Xia,” “Somebody to Love,” “Full Circle” and “IP Man 2.”

Because of those quotas, as well as the built-in awareness and thirst for Hollywood product and the government control of distribution, the studios haven’t developed sophisticated marketing plans in China. Will Smith talked to Chinese viewers on a giant screen via Skype after the bow of “Men in Black 3,” which took $19.5 million on its opening weekend. James Cameron was an honored guest at April’s Beijing Film Festival; his appearance and accessibility to the local media probably helped push the 3D version of “Titanic” to a $67 million first-week bow, making it the top opener of all time in China.

Still, the Hollywood marketing and PR departments haven’t caught up with the growth in the China market, says Metan Development prexy Larry Namer, who splits his time between Los Angeles and Beijing. Metan’s series “Hello Hollywood” reaches millions — it airs on 35 TV stations in the biggest urban centers in China, unspools on the vastly popular website Tencent and is on all the high-speed trains — but Namer says his staff in L.A. still has difficulty getting through to the marketing and PR folks at the studios, even though Namer and his team provide free PR for Hollywood pics.

“But I have to say, in the past three months, we have reinvigorated our efforts with the studios and have had more response than we have had in the first two years,” he says, adding that stars and their managers are now beginning to realize that they need to be more active doing brand- and image-building in China, even when they have no film to promote. Metan has just teamed up with the soon-to-launch Mingyian, which will specialize in helping Western celebs build their China brands.

“The least important is casting in China,” An says. “Generally, people don’t choose to go to a film because of the star.”

Increasingly, though, there are signs that star power is becoming a draw, particularly in promotional material on the Internet. In March, Chinese actress Yao Chen became the first user of microblog site Sina Weibo — China’s version of Twitter, with some 300 million members — to register a total of more than 18 million followers. Word spreads quickly via the service, which is a popular way for thesps to promote themselves and their films.

Most domestic films face a daunting challenge in the struggle to be heard above the din of a rapidly growing local market, as well as increased competition from Hollywood, says producer An, who adds that the typical marketing spend for Chinese films can often be comparatively higher than for Hollywood movies, partly due to a lack of established tentpoles in Chinese cinema.

The pressure to improve the marketing of local movies is intensifying — last year, 791 local films were released, earning $1.11 billion at the box office, or about 53.6% of total ticket sales.

However, about 90% of these lost money. Some movies are guaranteed success, like “Founding of a Great Republic” or “Beginning of the Great Revival” — slick propaganda films that come with the approval of the Communist Party and have a guaranteed audience, with cinema screens cleared of competition during their runs.

Geographically, when developing a film’s marketing campaign, a Chinese studio will first focus on so-called Tier One cities — major population centers that include Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, followed by Shenzhen, Chengdu and Chongqing. After that, the focus turns to Second Tier cities like Wuhan, Changsha and Shenyang, and the country’s provincial capitals.

Tier Two and Tier Three cities are gaining in importance on the back of the real estate boom, when developers built shopping malls that featured multiplexes in smaller cities; indeed, trailers are being made that cater specifically to these smaller markets. This, too, however, adds to a pic’s marketing budget.

World Report: China 2012
Filmmakers play by China rulebook | H’wood takes censorship in stride | Real estate boom brings movies to the masses | Studios, exhibs get China boost | Regime change carries warning signs | TV a tiny share of China market | H’wood needs no introduction | Top mainland mavens own inside scoop