Chengdu film week showcases China's online movies

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The first China Online Movie Week was held in the Southwest Chinese city of Chengdu from Oct 22 to 26. [Photo provided to]

Official statistics show the number of internet users in China reached 854 million as of June 2019, greatly boosting the development of online movies in the country.

With short production cycles, low investments and speedy, substantial potential returns, online movies have attracted a large influx of capital over the past five years. The movies were criticized by many, however, as inferior.

The first China Online Movie Week, which recently concluded in Chengdu - capital of Southwest China's Sichuan province - sheds light on problems facing the industry and aims to look for solutions for a better future. The event was held from Oct 22 to 26 in Anren ancient town in Dayi county, on the outskirts of Chengdu.

More than 200 representatives from academia, the industry, production companies and research institutions convened at forums and salons at the five-day event, sharing ideas on content creation, industry regulation and talent cultivation.

Turning from quantity to quality

The idea of "online movies", widely referring to those screened on the internet instead of cinemas, first emerged in China in 2014.

Broadcasted on China's Netflix-like service iQiyi, Tencent Video and Alibaba's Youku, such movies became popular among young people in a short time span, especially those in third- and fourth-tier cities where access to theaters is not as easily won as in big cities.

Because of the large potential market, relative ease of distribution and short production cycle, both professional and amateur filmmakers vied with one another to tap into the new industry since its advent five years ago.

Statistics show the number of online movies grew from 450 in 2014 to nearly 1,900 in 2017, and the market size rose from 2014's 100 million yuan ($14 million) to 2 billion yuan ($280 million) in 2017.

Critical voices also mount with rapid market growth.

"From our observations, there have been several controversies about online movies in recent years, such as the poor quality," Yang Xianghua, senior vice-president of iQiyi, said Thursday at a forum on challenges and opportunities for online movies.

Adding his perspective, Chang Bin, vice-president of Tencent Penguin Pictures, said, "In terms of the reasons, I think it's not because of the money. It's the lack of talent. I hope online film companies realize the importance of quality filmmaking, in terms of the cast and the script. Some finish script writing and the whole shooting process in just one month. Quality is hard to guarantee that way," Chang said.

Sharing her company's experiences, Mu Xue, CEO of New Studios Pictures, said: "Last year, our online movies were finished in 15 days on average. This year, the average is 20 days, and that number will increase 20 to 30 percent next year. Regarding the production cost, there are no projects invested in at under 5 million yuan ($710,000) in my company. Some cost up to 20 million yuan ($3 million)."

While investment in cinema movies averages at above 5 million yuan ($700,000), that of online movies are usually under 10 million yuan ($1.4 million) - some lower than 300,000 yuan ($42,000).

A lack of professionals

Meeting press on Wednesday, Yang Xianghua pointed out the industry has a shortage of good stories and experienced screenwriters.

Yin Chao, founder of online film production company Tmeng Pictures, said: "At the very beginning, a majority of online filmmakers were movie fans or advertising directors, instead of those with professional film study backgrounds. They were not optimistic about the industry, so they did not join. Now more and more of them are willing to shoot online movies, which was unimaginable in previous years."

During the film week, Chinese video streaming giants iQiyi, Youku and Tencent jointly released a statement appealing for expert film workers to support and invest in online movies so as to improve the industry's artistic standards. The companies also called for a shift from quantity to quality production and stricter approval criteria.

A hotbed for young talent

"With lower thresholds for directors than cinema movies, the online movie industry has provided an opportunity to a large number of young graduates, which is very important for film talent cultivation in China," said professor Wang Rui, head of the Directing School of Beijing Film Academy, a leading Chinese film school. 

He went on to say he hopes online movie genres could be diversified to attract more participants and audience members.

For a long time, Chinese online movies were centered around cheaply made comedies, eye-catching monk zombie movies and fantasy dramas until more realistic themes emerged in 2018.

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