Pros­per­ous main­land mo­tion pic­ture in­dus­try mines Web for odd­ball tal­ent


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.

De­spite re­stric­tions on what can be shown in main­land 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 US$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.

Com­pa­nies that in­clude e-com­merce gi­ant Alibaba, on­line game and so­cial me­dia op­er­a­tor Ten­cent, and Baidu, which runs main­land 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 US$1 bil­lion in en­ter­tain­ment con­tent, the first tranche of which would be spent with Youku.

Mar­cel Fenez, an en­ter­tain­ment and me­dia ex­pert at PwC in Hong Kong, said whereas the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try has been “neatly pack­aged” into film, TV and pub­li­ca­tions, “the on­line dig­i­tal plat­form en­ables peo­ple to tran­scend those tra­di­tional ar­eas and to be able to do any­thing.”

This blur­ring be­tween the on- line and off­line is al­ready hap­pen­ing in the United States. Net­flix struck big with its own con­tent such as “House of Cards,” putting whole sea­sons on­line at once. The se­quel to Ang Lee’s “Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon” will be the first Net­flix-backed film to pre­miere both on an in­ter­net TV plat­form and in IMAX the­aters.

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 and turns it into low-bud­get movies cost­ing less than 100 mil­lion yuan (US$16 mil­lion).

Youku Tu­dou CEO Koo said that in the past, peo­ple de­cid­ing on a film to watch or back re­lied on es­tab­lished di­rec­tors.

Yi, the on­line star who goes by the web name of Yi Xiaox­ing, was no­ticed by Tu­dou when his short videos be­came popular. That led to him form­ing a com­pany and mak­ing the web se­ries “Sur­prise,” about a young man for whom things of­ten go wrong.

The se­ries had a bud­get of about 50,000 yuan (US$8,000) per episode. Yi said rev­enue from the first sea­son was more than 10 mil­lion yuan (US$1.6 mil­lion) and the sec­ond sea­son dou­bled that fig­ure.

For Chi­nese film­mak­ers the ma­jor op­por­tu­nity is still the do­mes­tic au­di­ence and few be­lieve they will be suc­cess­ful tar­get­ing an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence be­cause of the cul­tural gap.

Koo said be­cause of this they will see more China-Hol­ly­wood co­op­er­a­tion.

Pos­si­ble re­mains of Soviet troops who died fight­ing in main­land China in the closing days of World War II have been found, state me­dia re­ported, as Moscow and Bei­jing gear up to com­mem­o­rate the 70th an­niver­sary of the con­flict’s end.

The re­mains were dis­cov­ered dur­ing a sur­vey this month by a joint team from the two coun­tries, the of­fi­cial Xin­hua News Agency said, as their re­la­tion­ship grows in­creas­ingly in­ter­twined.

The pre­lim­i­nary search, in which six ex­perts from Rus­sia par­tic­i­pated, was for the re­mains of 413 Soviet sol­diers who died fight­ing Ja­panese forces on Hu­oshan moun­tain and in three nearby vil­lages in the north­east­ern prov­ince of Hei­longjiang, Xin­hua said.

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