January 25, 2024
BEIJING – A poor female worker reluctantly agrees to an intimate relationship with a wealthy farm owner in Africa, but their initially forced interactions soon blossom into an unexpected romance.
This is just one example of a mini-drama getting ready to be streamed on a Chinese app, though its supervisor deemed it not dramatic enough and sought more twists and turns in each episode lasting one to three minutes.
This novel storytelling format, comprising about 60-80 episodes in one series, usually tends to offer melodramatic hooks at every turn to keep the audience engaged throughout.
For instance, in Never Divorce a Secret Billionaire Heiress, viewers can finish watching a complex plot involving incompatible marriages and fights for inheritance in under 10 minutes.
Such mini-dramas are becoming quite popular among viewers in the United States and Southeast Asia.
“Audiences today prefer a narrative style that is eye-catching and quick, with a compact plot and successive climaxes, as proved by the success of trendy mini-dramas like The Double Life of My Billionaire Husband in the US,” said California-based bilingual freelance scriptwriter Yang Zhang. “Our project’s producer wants to replicate the success, but in other markets that are yet untapped, like Africa.”
The trailer of The Double Life of My Billionaire Husband on video streaming platform YouTube, under the official account of its producer ReelShort, has garnered over 7.94 million views so far.
In fact, a comment with the highest number of “likes” speaks for millions of fans－”Is it weird that the show is cheesy but I still like it?”
ReelShort, a video streaming app from California-based Crazy Maple Studio, is owned by Chinese digital content provider COL Group and was launched overseas, primarily in North America, in 2017.
The company initially uploaded Chinese mini-dramas with English subtitles directly onto overseas platforms, but failed to gain much traction.
ReelShort subsequently decided to use localized production, using native speakers in the United States for its cast and crew. From actors to settings, everything aims to align with local aesthetic preferences. The scripts are adapted from popular overseas web novels, with each episode lasting no more than 3 minutes.
This revamped strategy became a game-changer for ReelShort.
According to data analysis firm Sensor Tower, ReelShort saw around 2 million downloads each month from July to October.
Data analysis company Data.ai, previously known as App Annie, said ReelShort generated a revenue of $4.83 million in September.
The company’s data show that about 70 percent of ReelShort’s users are women, with nearly half of those aged 45 and above.
On Nov 11, the app surpassed short-video platform TikTok to become the most popular entertainment app on Apple Inc’s US app store.
The latest data from app analysis platform Appfigures show that ReelShort had an estimated 2 million downloads in November in the US, netting the company roughly $5 million in revenue a month through subscriptions, in-app purchases and advertisements.
ReelShort’s phenomenal success leverages the support of its parent company COL Group, which has successfully launched Kiss (an online novel application) and Chapters (interactive story games) overseas.
These ventures have, in turn, fueled ReelShort’s demand for content, enabling the quick release of more heartwarming hit short dramas, drawing on COL’s years of experience understanding locally preferred content.
Shenzhen-listed COL Group’s share price surged to its highest level last year, reaching 35.98 yuan ($5) per share on Nov 22.
ReelShort is not the only one to have ventured overseas.
Apps like FlexTV, ShortTV, GoodShort, and ShortFlix have all entered the North American and Southeast Asian markets, sparking a mini-drama production rush.
Total downloads of these five apps hit a record high in September to over 3 million times, from roughly around 200,000 five months previously, according to Data.ai’s analysis.
Industry insiders said these apps have been developed by various players in China’s entertainment sector, such as domestic producers and distributors of mini-program dramas, full-length video streaming platforms, film and TV production companies, and online literature platforms.
The North American market is emerging as a battleground, while Southeast Asia and the Middle East are also attracting significant attention.
They said the industry is heating up, with each app fiercely vying for bilingual scriptwriters and directors overseas, acting as a bridge between Chinese backers and global audiences.
However, there has been a mismatch between supply and demand for such talent.
In a bid to maintain a high frequency of new releases and captivate viewers’ attention, numerous platforms are scouting for scripts domestically and seeking overseas teams for a touch-up.
ReelShort once flooded lifestyle-sharing platform Xiaohongshu with a call for freelance scriptwriters, offering up to $10,000 per series. This attracted a plethora of enthusiasts eagerly waiting to jump into the fray.
“Such an offer is far below the average for a film or TV series. I would say there’s big room for payment rise to mini-drama writers as a top-tier writer can easily earn over 1 million yuan per year,” said Iris Huang, a Beijing-based film and TV series producer.
The overseas market may seem like a blue ocean, but entry barriers are not insignificant.
Some argue that venturing abroad for short dramas requires an understanding of a myriad of issues, such as the overseas market, user preferences, cultural differences and local expressions.
COL Group, for instance, has long been involved in overseas businesses, having tested the feasibility of telling romantic stories in various forms like online novels, videos and games.
Short dramas simply emerged as a natural byproduct of this ongoing exploration.
“The majority of overseas viewers of Chinese mini-dramas are women aged 20 to 50. Therefore, popular content tends to be more female-oriented. North American audiences enjoy romantic stories about werewolves, vampires and the mafia. In Southeast Asia, people love stories about family ethics,” said Liu Jinlong, leader of Jiuzhou Culture’s overseas business.
Jiuzhou Culture launched two mini-drama platforms catering to international audiences this year: 99TV and ShortTV, with the former targeting Southeast Asian markets and the latter mainly intended for the US, Canada and Australia.
The company now offers Chinese dramas with foreign language subtitles generated by the company’s AIGC system, enabling mass production. It also involves overseas production, as seen in the overseas vertical short drama Dangerous Contract: Let Me Go, Mr CEO, filmed in Malaysia and featuring a Chinese director and foreign actors.
As of November, Jiuzhou Culture has produced over 600 mini-dramas for the overseas market. Among these, 80 percent are adaptations of domestic mini-dramas dubbed in English, while the rest are original works created, filmed, and produced by overseas teams.
To date, the company’s overseas audience has exceeded 10 million.
Liu said he is upbeat about the market’s prospects and the company will soon develop mini-dramas targeting Spanish and Arabic speakers.
Overseas productions with foreign cast and crew have higher costs and slower investment returns.
The cost usually comes to $100,000 to $150,000 for a 70-episode mini-drama, which is about six times more than a similar domestic production, Liu said. “But we think it is worth the investment, because we get closer to our audience.”
Liu said cultural expressions vary across different countries.
“For instance, the archetype of a domineering CEO is perceived as wealthy and handsome in both China and the US, each embodying a colossal business empire. However, in Africa, a farm owner might be regarded as a domineering CEO. It’s crucial to incorporate elements that align with the local culture to boost viewership,” he said.
“In addition, diverse cultural, legal, copyright, and regulatory requirements in different countries and regions can also impose constraints on the content,” Liu said.
Localized production aims to create more culturally resonant mini-dramas and meet the immediate, fragmented entertainment demands of the audience in a cost-effective manner, said Zhang Yi, CEO and chief analyst at consultancy iiMedia Research.
“Soap operas with elements of love fantasies are not new. Yet, the Chinese apps’ approach with a vertical screen and an intense climax every other minute has injected new vigor into the market,” said Bai Yang, a Chinese mini-drama screenwriter based in California. “For content creators, the stories are similar, but the structure has adapted to better suit the audience’s desire for quick and efficient storytelling.”