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After runaway growth, Web films begin to focus on quality

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After runaway growth, Web films begin to focus on quality

When Wang Guandi's first film Champion in Village was released last year, he was thankful for the new genre of movies that has made it possible for newcomers like him to realize their dream of making films. Wang, who worked with an ad agency in Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong Province, made his film exclusively for the Internet, a variety that has a lower threshold than big screen releases. Web movies are a new and upcoming genre made solely for the Internet. However, they are not shorts and need to be over 60 minutes and have a complete storyline like mainstream feature films. The concept came from China's online video platform iQiyi.com in March 2014. Wang came to know about Web films in 2017 and realized such a genre provided him opportunity to direct a long movie independently. The first part of Champion in Village, a car race comedy, was made on a budget of 3 million yuan ($445,884) and earned back nearly 10 million yuan ($1.5 million). Like Wang, other young directors are now trying to cash in on the new opportunity. Previously, cinemas were the sole film distribution channel in China and many young directors found it hard to crack the market. According to China Insights Consultancy (CIC), though 970 films were produced in 2017, only 376 made it to cinemas, less than 40 percent of the total. The Web film audiences are mostly xiaozhen qingnian, literally meaning young people from small towns in China. Young white-collar workers in third- and fourth-tier cities have more disposable income, less pressure from work and more time for themselves, compared with their peers in first-tier cities. However, despite their other advantages, small cities lack cinemas and other performance and entertainment facilities that abound big cities. So Web films have filled the gap and enriched their cultural life. Growth and decay Director Ding Hao's zombie Web movie Taoist Goes Up the Mountain, which premiered on iQiyi.com in 2016, showcases the advantages and marketing ploys of the genre. It was shot in just eight days on a shoestring budget of 280,000 yuan ($41,588). However, it grossed 24 million yuan ($3.56 million). One marketing gimmick was the title, which is a variation of renowned director Chen Kaige's fantasy martial arts epic Monk Comes Down the Mountain. Though the plots are different, the similarity in the titles drew viewers. In the early stage of the genre's development, many Web films used similar tactics, latching on to the limelight of films released in theaters around the same time for publicity. Web films' revenue comes from online video platforms with different platforms having different payment rules. For instance, iQiyi pays according to the number of times a film is viewed. A film is considered as viewed if it's watched for over six minutes. The success of Taoist Goes Up the Mountain was a landmark moment, boosting the confidence of the industry. Since then, the sector has experienced exponential growth with investment pouring in due to the comparatively lower cost required and the short cycle of investment return. According to a report on the Web film industry by a market research firm iResearch, the market size of the industry rose from 100 million yuan ($14.9 million) in 2014 to 2 billion yuan ($297 million) in 2017, increasing 100 percent year on year on average. According to CIC, the number of Web films surged from 450 in 2014 to over 2,000 in 2016. However, excessive investment led to excessive supply as well as crude and homogeneous content, resulting in a number of Web film companies going bankrupt. Many films resorted to violence and pornography to attract viewers. Finally, the government stepped in with regulations to strengthen oversight of online content. In February, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) announced that Web films with an investment of over 1 million yuan ($148,628) must be submitted to it for approval. As a result of all the regulations, the number of Web films has declined but their quality has improved. The government hopes that Web films will spread positive values like mainstream films do. Today, there are more realistic films, which are regarded as having a greater chance of getting official approval, while the number of fantasy, action, horror, adventure and wuxia (martial art hero-centric) films which used to dominate the genre has been reduced. In 2018, over 1,500 Web films were streamed, a 23.9-percent decrease from 2017. The total box office revenue reached 650 million yuan ($96.6 million). Adventure film Big Snake topped at 50.78 million yuan ($7.5 million). The future "At present, domestic films have homogenous content, but Web movies have diversified the genre and provided a chance for the survival of art films, satisfying the needs of all kinds of viewers," CIC Executive Chairman Zhu Yue told the media. However, industry insiders say Web films are unlikely to replace mainstream cinema though there may be interchanges between TV dramas and Web films. An increasing number of audiences are watching TV dramas online. The widely popular period drama Story of Yanxi Palace, the tale of a young woman becoming a seamstress in the emperor's harem to discover the truth about her sister's death, was streamed online before TV stations purchased its copyright. "Web dramas are no different from TV dramas and can't compare with mainstream films in visual and audio effects," Zhu said. Also, cinemas fulfill audiences' needs to socialize, Ya Ning, President of iQiyi Motion Pictures, said at an online film forum during the Ninth Beijing International Film Festival in April. Moreover, theater screens will be increasingly larger in the future to establish their size advantage over TV screens. Gong Yu, founder and CEO of iQiyi, said it's unrealistic to distribute films online only, especially in China, where most video websites are cash-strapped. Offline cinemas will always exist although the business model may change. Web films have expanded the distribution channel of films and should work with mainstream films for a win-win model. Panelists at the forum agreed that content is paramount. Whether it is traditional films or Internet films, high-quality content will always be the key to success. Consumers should be encouraged to pay for online content to expand the revenue of Web films. As of the end of September 2018, iQiyi had over 80 million subscribers. Compared with China's vast population, it still has much room for expansion. "If viewers are willing to pay for individual Web films, the revenue of the genre will greatly increase," Song Jia, a director of the film copyright cooperation center of iQiyi, told the media. Other business models such as showing a film simultaneously online and in cinemas can also be explored to increase revenue, she added.

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