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China’s minidrama producers set their sights on challenging Netflix

Written by Nikkei Asia Published on   6 mins read

Ultra-short episodes and wacky plots help series flourish on social media.

A college student from the present time wakes up to find herself transported back to 1980s China, where she meets a pig farmer with two children and relatives plotting to take advantage of his wealth. Instantly attracted to the farmer, she not only wins his heart but uses her modern-day thinking to teach the scheming relatives a lesson. The two end up happily married.

This is the plot of one of the hottest minidramas in China during the recent Lunar New Year holiday. With each episode lasting just one or two minutes and each series generally covering 80–100 episodes, minidramas started to take off last year, winning viewers largely through social media platforms like WeChat and Douyin.

In a country where people are less willing to pay for content, producers of these shows have found a way to open viewers’ wallets. Most offer the first 10 or 20 episodes online for free then start to charge at key points in the story. The return on investment can be striking, industry insiders say. Shooting an entire series takes just seven to 10 days from start to finish, and the total cost is typically between RMB 300,000–500,000 (USD 41,000–69,500). But when a series goes viral, it can rake in more than RMB 100 million (USD 13.6 million) within a week.

Big tech companies such as Tencent and Baidu and well-known actors like Stephen Chow are starting to join the game. Now, with a bit of domestic success under their belts and the prospect of bigger spenders overseas, some producers are dreaming big: to challenge Netflix on its home turf.

“Compared to Netflix, we are optimistic about the outlook of minidramas, as people’s attention span gets shortened today,” said He Zexi, director of overseas operations at minidrama production company Jiuzhou Culture, during a recent webinar.

Moreover, Netflix relies on subscriptions, while minidramas have a hybrid model of monetization that includes subscriptions and pay-per-view for individual episodes, he explained. “We firmly believe that one of us will grow into a unicorn on par with Netflix.”

Some Chinese production companies are already entering the US market. ReelShort—an app owned by Beijing-based COL Group, a digital publisher backed by Tencent and Baidu—launched globally in August 2022. The company initially adapted domestic minidramas with English subtitles but started to use actors and studios in Los Angeles after four months.

The app is rated 3.9 out of 5 on Apple’s store from about 23,000 ratings. It offers bite-size shows with cheesy titles such as “The Double Life of My Billionaire Husband” and “Married at First Sight.”

The US has been the most lucrative market for ReelShort, representing almost 70% of total in-app purchase revenue for the platform since its launch, according to data provided by Sensor Tower. January, the most lucrative month ever for the streaming platform, saw roughly 6 million total mobile downloads from the Apple and Google app stores while earning almost USD 15 million in worldwide in-app purchase revenue.

Since its launch, ReelShort has racked up more than 28 million worldwide downloads and more than USD 77 million in revenue from users spending on premium packages and one-time views, according to Sensor Tower.

While ReelShort’s revenue has risen, shares of COL Group have been on a roller coaster. Its stock price in Shenzhen surged more than 200% from late October to late November, plunged around 50% in the following three months then rebounded nearly 50% in February.

“There has been a shift with the rise in visibility of short vertical videos, which have become increasingly popular not only on TikTok but also popular on Youtube, Facebook, and other platforms,” said Michael Berry, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Vertical content has become increasingly popular thanks to social media platforms like TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram. This format allows videos to be viewed with the phone held in its upright position and encourages endless scrolling.

“Younger viewers tend to be quicker to adopt the new apps and platforms that feature ReelShort-type of programming. Much of the content is also created to cater to younger audiences and designed to be ‘addictive,’ making it harder for younger tech users to resist the impulse to binge-watch,” Berry added. “As the demographic broadens to older users, new opportunities for more varied and scripted content also increase.”

Although the cost of production remains low compared to more serious dramas, spending on social media—namely Meta, Google and TikTok—to drive traffic to their respective platforms is the largest cost, according to Jiuzhou Culture’s He. Chinese media reported that some studios could spend up to 80% of the total recharge amount on traffic ads.

Targeting overseas users can also be more tricky, He added.

“The difference in privacy policies between home and abroad can lead to discrepancies in algorithm precision,” He said. “As a result, the barriers and complexity for advertising on overseas social media platforms are currently higher than those at home, resulting in lower efficiency compared to domestic operations.”

ReelShort is not the only Chinese-owned platform to launch a minidrama app to target overseas markets. Others include GoodShort, MoboReels, and FlexTV.

Good actors are the key to the success of minidramas, said a Beijing-based producer, who asked not to be named. “We would target female audiences in both home and overseas markets. In general, the male protagonist has to be rich and handsome, and the female protagonist would usually look plain but have a likable personality,” the producer said. “This helps to meet the female audience’s fantasy.”

To reach foreign viewers, some production companies simply upload popular Chinese dramas with English subtitles. Others recast dramas using Western-looking actors—often e-commerce platform models, primarily from Ukraine and Russia, which industry sources say helps keep costs around 50% lower than filming in Los Angeles.

In exceptional cases, companies are experimenting with artificial intelligence, using it to replace Chinese faces with Western ones. This strategy has become a source of revenue in itself, with companies offering AI face-swapping services for anywhere from RMB 50,000 (USD 6,830) to over RMB 100,000 (USD 13,660) for a whole series. The cost is higher if “lip-sync translation” is required, industry sources say.

Insiders told Nikkei Asia that using AI to swap faces is not the mainstream approach, for a couple of reasons.

“It is still a question if the US and European markets will accept this kind of face-swapping,” said Jiuzhou Culture’s He. “We have tried the tactic multiple times, but when it comes to profiles or extensive movements, particularly in scenes with intense emotions and significant action, the implementation of AI face-swapping falls short. Currently, there is no widely acclaimed model available.”

Several producers in China told Nikkei Asia that their companies are mainly focusing on two female-targeted themes, particularly for the US market: revenge and werewolf-centric dramas. They are also exploring the possibility of themes such as survival on a deserted island, zombies, and boys’ love.

“In China, one out of every 25 dramas becomes popular, while the ratio in the overseas market is about one out of every 3.5 dramas,” said a senior content manager from a minidrama production company. “Compared to Chinese viewers, international viewers are more willing to pay, as they don’t go around and search for pirated sources.”

But the Beijing-based producer said it was too early to say if minidramas can replicate their domestic success on the global stage. “Chinese minidramas have already begun to enter the explosive phase at home. But it’s a completely different story when it comes to the international market. A big question mark is if the overseas market will buy these all-Chinese-told stories,” she said.

“Chinese producers often prioritize work over rest, but foreign actors expect regular breaks and rights protected by local unions, which can be challenging for many Chinese individuals to fully understand and could cause conflicts,” she said.

This article first appeared on Nikkei Asia. It has been republished here as part of 36Kr’s ongoing partnership with Nikkei.


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