Internet-only movies offer cheaper, faster thrills

Editor:Sharon Lee
Updated:2015-12-03 09:21:59

New source of cheap thrills

  Monk Comes Out of the Mountainis among China's biggest Internet-only features this year. Photos provided to China Daily

  Online flicks are easier to produce and bypass traditional distribution platforms, such as cinemas and TV, and once uploaded to Chinese video sites, they can reach an audience of some 650 million, Raymond Zhou writes.

  When Le Vision Pictures planned to prescreen a new release in late November, it ran into a stumbling block in the form of film exhibitors.

  Prescreening is customary in the film industry, but where Le Vision riled the exhibition arm of the business was in the choice of its venue. While most such screenings take place in movie theaters or private rooms (usually post-production facilities), Le Vision wanted to have its screening online for its paid subscribers. Even though its subscriber base is limitedit's said to be 50,000movie theater chains unanimously saw the move as a threat to their business.

  Le Vision had to cancel its plan and apologize to both exhibitors and its members. But had The Murderer Vanishesbeen an Internet-only film, the fracas would not have taken place.

  Most feature films in the fiction category typically premiere in movie theaters, professionally known as a "theatrical release". And after a "window" of a few months, they move to less influential platforms, such as television and online streaming. Distribution via videotapes and disks never really took off in China.

  An Internet-only film bypasses traditional platforms, such as theaters and television. It is uploaded to video sites such as iQiyi and Youku, making it available to a vast online audience, currently at 650 million Chinese, much like other user-generated content such as text and graphics.

  According to Li Yansong, president of iQiyi Pictures, an Internet-only feature has a budget of between 500,000 yuan ($78,000) and 4 million yuan, with no elaborate sets and a much shorter production cycle of two or three months.

  It is longer than 60 minutes and the core is the storytelling. New source of cheap thrills

  Beach Rescue Teamis among China's biggest Internet-only features this year.

  An Internet-only feature is distinguishable from a microfilmwhich was in focus a few years agonot only due to its longer duration but also the source of funding.

  While most microfilms are short films backed by advertisers and include strong commercial messages, Internet-only features have to make their money by attracting a large number of eyeballs. Most Internet-only features are around 90 minutes and meet the technical requirements of theatersyet they still look "cheap". Internet-only features can be compared to B-movies when double features were the norm in the United States, or the direct-to-video releases when the video rental chain Blockbuster held sway.

  A few months ago, Beach Rescue Team, an Internet-only feature, held a screening party in a Hangzhou cinema.

  The production company says that it cost 2 million yuan to make and that it had earned twice that figure from online proceeds.

  Yu Yongyang, its producer, says the movie could have been released in cinemas because it met theater standards. An iQiyi representative attended that event.

  Beach Rescue Teamsounds very much like Baywatch in Chinese.

  Baywatch is an American action-drama series about the lifeguards who patrol the beaches of Los Angeles County, California, starring David Hasselhoff.

  As a matter of fact, most Internet-only features seem to be rip-offs or a riff of some known quantity, at least in the title or concept.

  One of 2015's biggest Internet-only features is Monk Comes Out of the Mountain, a corruption of Chen Kaige's Monk Comes Down the Mountain.

  Another characteristic of Internet-only features is the prevalence of horror titles.

New source of cheap thrills

  Monk Comes Out of the Mountainis among China's biggest Internet-only features this year.

  Horror as a genre is scrutinized closely by censors, who take a very strict approach"no ghosts allowed" and "no supernatural phenomenon". But online features tend to get more leeway even though technically the same censorship rules apply to all platforms.

  Zhang Tao, writer-director of Monk Comes Out of the Mountain, says: "Internet-only features are built on the base of traditional genre movies. But you have to add more current elements. In a relatively freer environment, we've got to do something that others can't."

  iQiyi has amassed a collection of some 500 Internet-only features, the largest among China's video sites, which it offers its paid subscribers for a certain amount of time. Across cyberspace, a cumulative 900 such titles are available by the end of this year.

  iQiyi takes a minimum cut of 30 percent, which, compared with movie exhibitors, is very favorable for the production side.

  In 2014, it generated 50 million yuan in total revenue with such titles and it claimed that roughly 30 percent of the titles broke even from Internet distribution alone.

  Revenues are expected to go up three to four times this year, with some 60 percent of titles crossing the break-even point, an iQiyi executive says earlier.

  March 18, 2014, is considered by some in the business as the day Internet-only features were born. iQiyi held a forum that day to launch its Internet-only features initiative.

  Some see this new type of film as an ideal platform to launch young talent.

  Chen Qiuping, an officer of the Beijing Filmmakers Society, says: "The creation of movies requires practice and Internet-only features provide more opportunities for youngsters who dream of entering the profession. So, it is beneficial in the long term."

  While Internet-only features have a humble origin and a humbler look, its sibling, Internet-only series, meanwhile, are attracting bigger stars and more money, creating verifiable hits and becoming an alternative to old-fashioned TV shows.