Booming China film industry mines Web for oddball talent

By LOUISE WATT Associated Press

BEIJING (AP) — 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 the biggest audience, 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 plot-less 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 while viewing habits are less entrenched and easier to change. But the influx of new money isn’t chasing cinematic quality, say film critics and industry observers, who don’t foresee homegrown Chinese films attracting a global audience.

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

“It’s sexy to have a movie company,” said Victor Koo, CEO of video streaming business Youku Tudou Inc., which co-produced three of China’s top-10 grossing films last year.

Despite restrictions on what can be shown in Chinese movie theaters because of state censorship, 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 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 local audiences, partnering with Chinese production companies, and sending stars such as Johnny Depp on publicity tours.

Yet the blossoming of the industry is mostly about quantity.

Film critic Raymond Zhou said that 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 low brow fare.

“They just aim so low it’s a shame to call themselves artists,” he said.

Companies that include e-commerce giant Alibaba, online game and social media operator Tencent, and Baidu, which runs China’s most popular search engine, 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.

Smartphone maker Xiaomi announced in November it would invest $1 billion in entertainment content, the first tranche of which would be spent with Youku.

Comments are closed.