Big-budgetiGirl tests waters in online film market
Hong Kong commercial film director Wong Jing is known for his close ties to a certain market. When he announced in Beijing on Tuesday that he will cooperate with online-video giant iQiyi for his upcoming sci-fi film, his message was clear: Forget about general interest. This is a film only for young netizens.
Produced byWong, iGirl, which is basically about a man’s adventures with his robot girlfriend, will be released on iQiyi inMarch.
Neither the booking of lead actor Ekin Cheng, who is an idol for the generation that grew up in the 1990s, nor the 10 million yuan ($1.52 million) budget seem outlandish in today’s booming film market.
However, when the film will only be available for the website’s paying users, it looks different.
China has never seen a film tailored for the Internet with somany big names plus such a budget.
Nevertheless, iGirl will also be released in Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and other markets beyond the mainland via traditional channels like cinemas and pay TV.
“Everyone now considers himself a director, whether he’s a TV anchor or writer,” Wong says. “As a director, maybe I should also find a part-time job.”
Perhaps his part-time job step onto a newbattlefield.
“China’s Internet technology has matured enough to support a market that’s just taking off (online films),” Wong says.
It is only a start forWong’s series of coproductions with iQiyi. As the country’s online-video viewers, who were once known for insisting only on free online viewing, have nurtured newhabits, the two sides are confident to take the adventurous step toward paid-for content.
According to a report on China’s paid-for online-video market, based on data from industry analyst iResearch and the China Internet Network Information Center, the market was valued nearly 1.2 billion yuan by September 2015. IQiyi had 10 million paying users by December.
“We expect the film
will bring more paying users for us,” says Yang Xianghua, vice-president of iQiyi, adding that more derivative products will be developed.
“Perhaps, the upcoming film will turn a new page for the industry. Online films will thus have higher quality.”
According to Yang, a featurelength online film inChina typically cost 500,000 to 800,000 yuan in 2014, but about 20 percent of films made last year cost more than 1 million yuan.
“Undoubtedly, it will keep rising in 2016,” he says.
Li Yansong, head of iQiyi Pictures, which runs the group’s film business, says: “Many previous online films were not careful with details. They usually restricted themselves to certain genres.”
Some cult film-like productions, such as those featuring ghosts and evil themes and even soft-core sex, once dominated the market. But both Yang and Li think an influx of investment will diversify the genres and breed more mainstream products.
“For example, more special effects will be introduced,” Li says. “That will allow genres like sci-fi to become popular.”
Wong believes the newplatform will give filmmakers more opportunity for creative expression.
“When people stay in a private space to enjoy these online films, those that demand more thought and a slower pace will have chance to get an audience, while a film in today’s cinema needs to get people hooked from the very beginning,” he says.
In spite of a promising future, Yang still prefers steadier steps. He says only about one-third of the company’s online films in 2016 will be self-made like iGirl, and iQiyi will still stick to its business model as a broadcaster.
All in all, in 2015, from among 612 feature-length films released on the site, only 35 earned more than 1 million yuan for their producers, which basically covered production costs.
However, as the market’s direction has switched, Yang sees opportunities in the future.
“There will certainly be a Steven Spielberg-level director who is bred online,” he predicts.
IGirl, directed by Hong Kong director Wong Jing (second from right), is a romantic film targeting young netizens.