Makers of short films in China find audiences online, but not profits

The creative potential for online microfilms is enormous on the mainland, but censorship and the difficulty in turning a profit are obstacles for young producers

Alvin Dong

It has been almost a decade since Mai Tian first arrived in Beijing to realise his ambition of becoming a successful filmmaker. “No one would dismiss you as a dummy if you say you’ve come to Beijing to pursue your dream,” says Mai, describing the capital as a “city of dreams”.

The Jiangsu native, who just turned 27, is certainly no dummy. After studying film production in college, Mai teamed up with friends in 2011 to set up his eponymous production studio.

Operating out of an artfully converted loft building in Sanjianfang, the workshop is located in the heart of an emerging fashion and media enclave just east of Chaoyang district and within easy access of the prestigious Communication University of China.

A cluster of trophies sitting on one table point to some of his triumphs: best film and best actress awards for I Was Good Here; and best screenplay and best actor prizes for Love Interest at the 3rd China University Microfilm Festival.

What distinguishes Mai from many traditional filmmakers is his focus on new media and online distribution. His production company has established partnerships with some 16 video streaming sites in China, notably majors such as Youku Tudou and iQiyi.

Many of its videos, micro movies and even feature films have received more than 100 million views. Mai’s favourite of these is Glorious Days. Taking its name from the 1990 hit by Hong Kong rock band Beyond, the micro movie follows the lives of four school friends whose camaraderie endures through time and personal struggles because of a shared love for music. The 41-minute film that he made in 2012 has been viewed nearly seven million times on Youku alone.

Mai’s gravitation towards new media and online platforms began, however, with an unexpectedly heavy snowfall in the winter of 2007. Then still studying at the private Ying Da Film School, he became enthralled by the sight of thick sheets of snow floating serenely to the ground and quickly made a short video of the scene. He posted the clip online and was taken aback by the response.

“I was blown away when I learned that within days, it had received more than 200,000 views,” says the loquacious Mai, pausing momentarily for emphasis.

“I chose online film production as my start-up business because of the formidable and grass roots power resources hidden in cyberspace.”

It’s amazing to be able to reach out to vast numbers of internet users and build your own loyal following, Mai adds, noting that distribution online costs a lot less.

Online video and film have seen unprecedented growth in the past two years compared to the traditional sources of content.

The number of viewers for television dramas, for example, hovered at about 340 million people in the second half of 2014, a slight dip from 2013.

But while online dramas attracted far fewer viewers (six times less at 57 million people) over the same period in 2014, it represented a stunning 293 per cent increase from 2013, according to iReach, a consultant firm that tracks the online media industry in China. In other words, the growth potential for the online market is enormous.

Even so, web-based film and video have their set of problems. A lot of material is saturated with product placement – when companies pay film studios to weave their products into scenes as a form of marketing.

Then there are jitters over unexpected clampdowns by censors (no less severe for cyberspace than conventional cinema screens), not to mention the lack of a sustainable business model.

Yu Xing, the CEO of Dashitang Media, a Nanjing-based production house specialising in creating streamed content, elaborates.

“A major production company may focus on releasing one film a year, so, if censored, they only have to edit just once; but we may produce a hundred microfilms, so it feels like being constantly slapped in the face,” he says.

More importantly, online entertainment is still a fledging industry and film producers find it hard to turn a profit, he adds.

A graduate of the Communication University of China in Nanjing, Yu is also 27 years old and a filmmaker. His micro movie Greet Love won the best screenplay award at the 4th Beijing International Microfilm Festival in January.

“Corporate sponsorship, shared advertisement revenues with video-streaming websites and viewer subscriptions are basically the main sources of income for online video and filmmakers,” Yu says.

“We can only expect to break even if we invest more than 200,000 yuan [HK$253,000] in a project and have more than tens of millions of viewers, and one or two advisers. Online filmmaking is mostly for the sake of brand promotion now.”

Mai echoes his view. For all the relative freedom that cyberspace offers, the lack of alternative revenue streams means the nature of online videos and micro movies is essentially commercial.

“It’s said that the online micro movie was born out of advertising and it would end in it, too,” he says, with a hint of frustration. “We can hardly make money if we cannot have more chances to earn profits.”

Many fledgling film producers have no choice but to sadly bow out

Changes that could fundamentally reshape China’s online film sector, however, appear to be on the horizon. One of the first signs emerged last year when Beijing Enlight Media Group, a company engaged in TV and film investment, production and distribution, announced a joint venture with mainland tech giant Qihoo 360 to launch an online video business.

Some analysts say this would be based on the conventional cinema model. They would essentially operate video portals like online cinemas, allowing production companies to share in revenues generated from subscriptions or other forms of payment by viewers – and potentially increase earnings for online filmmakers.

Other internet giants have piled into the film industry; Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent have each taken controlling stakes in movie companies with an eye to building a market for spin-off products in games, music, and merchandise.

In fact, increasingly seamless links over the internet may usher in vigorous profits for online entertainment over the next few years. It has been widely noted that the rapid growth of online gaming and fiction has begun to spill into online film. And film producers are keeping a close eye on developments to snap up the rights to popular content that can be translated into online video.

But while filmmakers like Yu see the benefits of adapting successful games or hit books, they believe the greater potential for making money lies in developing spin-offs from their own creative content – extending the value chain by creating games based on a hit film or series,for example.

“Net profits generated by online streaming is too small; we are after influential products with original IPs,” Yu says.

This idea was inspired by Surprise, a hit comedy series made by online video site Youku Tudou and production company Unimedia.

Built around the funny adventures of a poor drifter named Wang Dachui, Surprise has been viewed more than two billion times. Its success reportedly prompted talks between California-based DreamWorks Animation and Unimedia for collaborations on developing further online content based on the show.

But the real significance emerged after a mobile game based on the series was developed for Android and iOS platforms, which attracted more than 800,000 downloads in its initial trial period early this year. The iTunes store states this game offers in-app purchase options that cost up to 328 yuan.

“Some online films have really tempting storytelling. They have enormous potential to expand [copyrighted material], which could reshape the entire micro movie industry and further boost a development model that stresses ingenuity,” says Feng Jun, senior analyst at EntGroup, a leading entertainment research provider in China.

Despite the excitement over the potential boom in online video and film, the greatest ambition of young filmmakers such as Mai and Yu is still to produce a movie that will ultimately be viewed on the big screen in cinemas.

But each is taking a different route to realising their dreams. While Mai’s company is in talks with entertainment giant Huayi Brothers about partnership deals, Yu plans to remain in online film production for a little while longer to gain experience and bargaining power.

“Many fledgling film producers want to achieve more than they can afford at an early stage, but at the very end, they have no choice but to sadly bow out of a cruel and tumultuous market.”

Even in the digital age, it may pay to make haste slowly.

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