Netflix original ROMA won Oscars this year as the US-based streaming platform races to compete with Hollywood, and Apple is reportedly mulling how to produce Academy Award-worthy content of its own. But the development of China’s “internet film” industry has been hampered by complicated relationships between traditional film production companies and streaming platforms.
The Chinese film industry has struggled in the midst of a “capital winter” following last year’s series of tax evasion scandals, increasingly strict censorship, and fleeing investments. Cautious investors have looked at the space with skepticism, especially as a number of high-profile, big-budget productions get pulled from major international festivals at the last minute due to vaguely specified “technical reasons.” In the past week, we’ve seen war epic The Eight Hundred yanked at the last minute from opening Shanghai International Film Festival and bullying drama Better Days pulled from cinema release schedules ahead of its planned launch this week.
The companies that have shown the most willingness to invest in these uncertain times are BAT, as China’s big three tech companies Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent are known. The three biggest video streaming platforms in China—iQIYI, Youku, and Tencent Video—are owned or were initially sponsored by Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, respectively. Given their role as major online distributors, these tech giants are now looking to increase their involvement in the film industry, pursuing investment, production, and promotion, with a special eye on the creation of online-only “internet films.”
Outside the film industry itself, competition for video consumers’ and investors’ attention is no less harsh. According to the “China Netcasting Development Research Report” published by the China Netcasting Services Association in May, the overall number of video platform users in China in 2018 was 725 million, more than search engine users and online news readers. The market size reached RMB 187.13 billion (about $27.2 billion) last year, including RMB 46.71 billion from 648 million users of short-video platforms like Tik Tok and Kuaishou. This last figure represents an astonishing 744.7% increase from 2017, according to the report.
At the same time, 162 online variety shows aired on Chinese streaming platforms in 2018, an increase of 14.1% compared to 2017. These programs attracted a 58.1% increase in investment during 2018.
Many of the viewers fueling this uptick in viewers are paid members. This past Saturday, iQIYI announced that the platform now has more than 100 million paid registered members, with membership now making up a larger portion of their revenue than advertisements. It is believed that there are approximately 300 million paid members of video platforms on the Chinese internet at present.
Yu Dong, founder and CEO of major production company and distributor Bona Film Group, famously predicted in 2014 that “Film production companies will work for BAT in the future.” Yu’s comments were confirmed at this year’s Shanghai International Film Festival, the most important annual gathering of film industry professionals in China, which concluded this past Sunday. Original, mostly exclusive, internet films and series produced by China’s major streaming platforms have decreased in quantity while increasing in quality over the past year. During the second Internet Summit at this year’s festival, an official panel entitled “New Content, New Model, New Marketing” put the focus on the internet film industry for the first time.
The phrase “internet films” has historically been used in the Chinese context to refer to small-budget, low-quality productions (usually zombie or ghost stories), cut to a length of 60-80 minutes and released exclusively on video streaming platforms. The phrase has typically been used to compare “internet films” unfavorably with films that have received investment from major tech companies, and traditional distribution in movie theaters. Defined by their short production times and low level of professional quality control (some producers of these films came from the advertising and video production world), the “internet film” sub-genre tag began to emerge in 2014.
As the earliest and biggest Chinese internet film distribution platform, iQIYI released 1,004 internet films produced by partner companies out of 1,710 submissions in 2018—a decrease from the number of such films the platform released the previous year. 1,523 internet films were released across all streaming platforms in 2018, a decrease of 19.5% compared to 2017—of these, only 22 were viewed more than 20 million times, while 872 were viewed less than one million times. Moreover, nearly half of the internet films released in 2018 have runtimes longer than 80 minutes, with some topping 100 minutes, closer in length to theatrical releases.
Depending on how these internet films perform, production companies can receive as much as RMB 50 million from the platform.
“The problem is content homogenization—most [internet films] are historical costume dramas,” said Yin Chao, founder of internet film/series production company TMENG Pictures, at a professional conference held during this year’s Shanghai festival. “A crucial path for breakthroughs in the future is to approach realistic themes, as theatrical films do. We need to try more screenwriting and story types.”
Liu Chaohui, founder of production company Wudaonanlai, added on the same panel that only bigger budget productions and further integration of film industry standards and collaborations could improve the reputation of internet films.
Clash of the video titans
Back on the distribution platform side of things, iQIYI, Youku, and Tencent Video all have announced plans to expand their market share.
During the June 12 internet film panel, Youku announced its “Plan Jin Xiu”, through which they will invest, promote, and distribute internet films in collaboration with top production companies. Its latest entrant in this field is the internet film series Beijing Women Catalog, which was co-produced with Xiron Entertainment and began airing over the weekend. You can watch the series here.
Alibaba-owned promotion and distribution service platform Beacon, which is based on data from Alibaba movie ticket selling platform Tao Piao Piao, will also apply their marketing strategy to internet films.
And Tencent’s Penguin Pictures have announced a plan to upgrade internet films to original films by increasing investment in certain projects. The company plans to use its marketing resources and business model to upgrade collaboration between the streaming platform and internet film production companies.
For iQIYI, interactive dramas are the next focus. After the platform announced that it would launch “the world’s first interactive video guidelines and interactive video platform” in May, their first interactive internet film His Smile, a story about a talent agent and five would-be boy band idols, was released on June 20.
Tencent and Youku also have interactive internet series in the works: romantic drama Boom Boom (Tencent) and detective thriller Miss Truth (Youku) have both completed filming, and are expected to be released later this year.
We have no idea how long it will take for the traditional Chinese film industry to recover from the capital winter it’s in now, but if the flurry of panels and hype around internet films is any indication, BAT companies and their streaming platforms may play a pivotal role in precipitating a thaw.