Internet giants move from behind the camera to front

Internet giants move from behind the camera to front
Cast members (from left to right) Tong Dawei, Deng Jiajia and Wei Chen at a promotional event for the video-streaming website iQiyi's upcoming crime thriller Lost in White.

Since China's netsurfing population has snowballed to nearly 650 million, it's no surprise that the ongoing Shanghai International Film Festival is overflowing with "Internet" labels.

As the earliest Chinese movie event to gain international attention back in the early 1990s, the festival is regarded by insiders as a trend indicator.

This year, after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang unveiled the new "Internet Plus" notion to encourage close co-operation between traditional industries and the Internet, the festival has reshaped the movie industry, which is 120 years old globally and 110 in China.

Most of the festival's forums are revolving around topics relevant to the digital giants' massive "invasion" of the giant screen, whether their themes focus on the Internet or not.

"BAT (an acronym for the Internet giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tecent) has established an entire ecosystem to reset the layout of the movie industry during the past year," says Yu Dong, president of Bona Film Group, at a forum at the festival.

The hot word "BAT" has gone viral since it was circulated after last year's festival in Shanghai, when Yu made his startling prediction that all Chinese film studios would eventually become subsidiaries of the three.

Bona produced 12 titles last year to bring in around 3 billion yuan (S$647 million), accounting for around 10 per cent of the 2014 total box office, and its comedy film The Man from Macao II topped the box office during the fiercely competed Spring Festival season earlier this year.

However, the high yields haven't eased worries, especially considering two other major privately owned entertainment companies, Huayi Brother and Enlight Media, have made Internet giants their second-largest shareholders.

With their stake holding, Internet giants have walked from the backstage to the front.

Alibaba Pictures, the film arm of China's largest e-commerce giant, Alibaba, has kicked off its second movie project to shoot Sansheng Sanshi Shili Taohua (Ten-Mile Peach Blossom of Three Lifetimes) earlier this month, following its first movie, The Ferryman. Both titles are adapted from namesake hit online novels, which have established solid fan bases during the past years.

Baidu's film unit, the video-streaming website iQiyi, announced it would make seven Chinese movies and one Hollywood title last July. With an online box office totaling 50 million yuan last year, iQiyi has shown its increasing presence during the festival in several upcoming big-budget films, such as the crime thriller Lost in White, partly financed by iQiyi and featuring A-list stars Tony Leung Ka Fai and Tong Dawei.

Yu says that the Internet giants have established an online commercial system, including crowdfunding, to raise money, making use of big data to calculate the possibilities of turning fans' enthusiasm to ticket sales, and getting back the investment from online services.

"It forms a closed ring. The only sector for us (traditional film studios) to survive and struggle is the creativity part," he says.

Cai Shangjun, a veteran director and a jury member of the festival's Golden Goblet Awards, tells China Daily that a good storyline is always the most important element.

"The really good tales cannot be designed by computer programs. The real beauty is emotional," he says.

Defining the core of a film festival as "exchange of thoughts" and "inspiring talent", Zhang Hongsen, director general of the film administration affiliated with the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, says "good works are always the only standard to judge movies" at the forum.

Even Internet insiders find it hard to reject this notion.

Liu Chunming, CEO of Alibaba Digital Entertainment Group, may declare that future moviemaking will "be revolutionary" by customizing the script and the cast to cater to targeted viewers, but he still says that the Internet-backed firms, with their big budgets, still need professionals and will rely on "the best director, the best crew and the best technology" to make well-received movies.

"The Internet has influenced the movie industry for four to five years. For me, it's not quite brand new to hear of the merging of the Internet and film business," says Wang Changtian, chairman of Enlight Media. "The biggest change is the way we think. The Internet also changes the way that a movie is produced, promoted and sold."

With online cinematic service Maoyan.com last year selling 82 million tickets, followed by Gewara.com with 45 million and Wepiao.com with 28 million, online ticket sales rose to around 50 per cent of the entire market, up from 40 per cent last year and 20 per cent in 2013.

Celebrities are also tasting the sweet power of the Internet, which allows them to shun traditional media exposure and promote themselves via social-networking services.

Guo Jingming, one of the richest authors in China, has recently made his upcoming movie Tiny Times 4 sensational news during the Shanghai festival. Followed by 38 million fans on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, the novelist-turned-director behind the 130 million yuan box-office hit Tiny Times franchise, was named the most influential weibo (micro blog) figure on Sunday, which is another way of saying that every sentence he posts on the Internet will easily reach potential ticket buyers as a promotion.

With all the chaos and turbulence in the market from the digital world, some domestic media are raising concerns.

"This is the best era for the Chinese movie market, and may also be the worst," concludes China Economic Weekly.

More about

Purchase this article for republication.

BRANDINSIDER

SPONSORED

Most Read

Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.