China film industry booms

Low-budget, lowbrow and breaking records

LOUISE WATT Associated Press

BEIJING – Yi Zhenxing’s movie career started by posting clips of himself online with a paper bag over his head commenting on computer games.

The videos got lots of views, so Yi, formerly a civil engineer, graduated to a Web-only comedy series about a young loser’s misadventures based on classic Chinese stories. To garner ever-bigger audiences, he monitored which episodes and parts of episodes were most popular before releasing the next one. Now, the 30-year-old’s playful and largely plotless videos are being worked into a movie aiming to get his millions of online fans into the cinemas.

The unusual path to the big screen shows how the Internet, granular data on online usage and private investment are driving changes in China’s film industry. The market is developing at a faster pace than in the U.S. and Europe.

But the influx of new money isn’t chasing cinematic quality, say film critics and industry observers.

Before, films were funded mostly by state-owned studios. Now, billionaires and companies in industries from mining to tourism are jumping into the booming film business whose growth is stunning even by China’s standards.

Despite state censorship restricting what can be shown in Chinese movie theaters, the country’s film industry is a force to be reckoned with. Box office revenue in 2014 was $4.9 billion, almost three times as much as in 2010.

China is building an average of 15 screens a day and is expected to surpass the stagnating North American box office and become the world’s biggest, by ticket sales, by 2020.

Hollywood is using Chinese actors and locations to appeal to audiences, partnering with Chinese production companies and sending stars such as Johnny Depp and Arnold Schwarzenegger on publicity tours.

Yet the blossoming of the industry is mostly about quantity.

Film critic Raymond Zhou said the quality of films produced last year worsened even as the box office broke records because investors chased “quick money” and producers churned out screwball comedies and other lowbrow fare.

E-commerce giant Alibaba, online game and social media operator Tencent and Baidu, which runs China’s most popular search engine, are among companies that have created their own film units or snapped up shares in entertainment businesses. They have huge reach and can use big data to glean information about the preferences and habits of their millions of users to target them with advertising, content and recommendations.

That’s information a traditional movie studio can only dream about.

In China, online video sites position themselves as a one-stop shop, unlike U.S. users having to go to YouTube for home videos and Netflix for movies and TV dramas.

Sites such as Youku Tudou are no longer content with streaming movies and making their own Web series.

It set up a small film unit of 20 people with no movie background that takes Youku’s original content – Yi Zhenxing’s plotless videos, for example – and turns it into low-budget movies.

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