Three plot twists in a minute? No problem for ReelShort’s cheesy dramas.

Three plot twists in a minute? No problem for ReelShort’s cheesy dramas.

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The show opens with a dramatic scene. A young woman stands alone in a bar, drinking away her bad memories: her fiancé demanding his engagement ring back in the wake of her family’s bankruptcy and her father’s death.

A handsome man enters the bar. It’s her ex-fiancé’s uncle, who is coincidentally also the richest guy in town. Our protagonist downs another shot, shakes her shiny blonde hair loose and walks right up to him. Her relationship with his nephew? That’s over, she says. She grabs his tie. Seconds later, they kiss, and the scene ends.

This all happens in a minute and a half. It is the entire first episode of “Snatched a Billionaire to Be My Husband,” a new series on Chinese-backed short video app ReelShort, which has dozens of shows — similarly light on character development and packed with curveballs — made for binge-watching in minutes. It’s part soap opera, part TikTok, all heavy-handed drama.

ReelShort is the latest app to follow in the steps of TikTok, aiming to bring an entertainment model popular in China to a global audience. Despite the cheesy plots, unknown actors and flubbed lines — not to mention all the real-life drama that has surrounded the popularity of Chinese apps like TikTok, Shein and Temu — Americans are flocking to the service.

Their target viewers are busy middle-aged American women looking for romance and fantasy, said Joey Jia, chief executive of Crazy Maple Studio, the company behind the ReelShort app.

Crazy Maple Studio was founded by Jia, a Chinese tech industry veteran, and Beijing-based digital content company COL, to take these ultrashort dramas to the international market.

The Chinese-backed app knocked TikTok out of the top spot in the entertainment category of Apple’s app store several times in November, and has remained in the top 10 since, according to data from mobile data analytics firm Sensor Tower. ReelShort has topped 30 million downloads worldwide, 40 percent of which came from the United States, Jia said.

While some people scoffed at the corny narratives, Jia bet they’d be a hit because many are cribbed straight from the romance stories popular on Crazy Maple Studio’s other platforms, which include interactive story game Chapters and web novel reader Kiss.

In the era of prestige television, when Netflix spends upward of $14 million per episode on hits like The Crown, the short shows on ReelShort and other Chinese apps like GoodShort and DramaBox keep production costs to an absolute minimum. It costs less than $300,000 to make an entire ReelShort show from start to finish, said Jia. No expensive sets or quiet luxury wardrobe, just romantic tension, scandals and betrayal.

“You need the conflicts up front, to simplify the characters, and not focus on a character arc,” said Jia. “We’re making vertical video, so people don’t care about the background.”

Although other attempts to make ad-break-length TV catch on have failed in the United States — notably the high-profile flameout of short-video platform Quibi in 2020 — bite-sized dramas made for streaming on smartphones have become a multibillion-dollar industry in China. The concept took off while movie theaters were closed during the coronavirus pandemic and has been particularly popular with workers who might have only a few minutes of downtime between gigs like delivery driving.

The short drama trend is already redefining China’s film and TV business, said Oscar Zhou, a scholar at University of Kent in Britain who studies the industry. One screenwriter he interviewed had been told to fit three plot twists into each minute on screen. “It’s not about the storyline — it is redefining the process of telling a story,” he said.

In Hengdian, the epicenter of China’s movie industry, many production studios have turned their attention to churning out short dramas. Up to 300 different crews might be out shooting short dramas around Hengdian, south of Shanghai, on any given day, said short drama director and screenwriter Fu Yicong.

Film crews in Hengdian are dispensing with much of the intense production that has gone into traditional movies and television, said Fu. Instead, they’re focused on volume, filming a 100-episode series in a single week.

“If you leave your artist’s pride at home and embrace streamlining, there is a good chance you can make big money,” said Fu.

There’s another factor: The Chinese government’s ongoing scrutiny of the tech industry has led many of these companies to look abroad.

China’s biggest tech companies have looked to make new Chinese internet trends — from live-streaming to discounted bulk purchases — popular in other markets, partly as a hedge against the mounting risks in the domestic market, where the government has repeatedly demonstrated willingness to wipe out billions from domestic tech company valuations to rein in their influence.

Although the market for short dramas in China — last year valued at over $5 billion, according to Chinese analytics firm iiMedia Research — is booming, short drama companies are worried they’ll become the next target.

One Chinese production company, Xi’an Fengxing Culture, made eight series in as many months before striking gold in February last year with “The Knockout,” a 108-episode drama in which an underdog bank clerk travels back in time to prevent his mother’s murder and exact revenge on a cheating girlfriend. In the year since, Fengxing has produced 17 more hit shows, including costume drama “Unparalleled,” which raked in $16 million over just eight days in August.

But after a Fengxing thriller series was censored for being too steamy, chief executive Li Tao decided to look for audiences outside of China.

They’re now filming a show in Egypt for the local market, and are in talks to make a show for ReelShort for which the actors must speak “impeccable American English,” said Li.

But making shows for the American market comes with its own set of challenges. They might not have to worry about censorship like in China, but they do have to think about stricter protections for copyright and intellectual property rights — and lawmakers’ vocal concern over how Chinese tech companies handle American users’ data.

Jia was already familiar with that level of scrutiny. Years before he started Crazy Maple Studio, he was part of the U.S.-based team for Chinese telecom giant ZTE, which was penalized beginning in 2017 for violating U.S. prohibitions on equipment sales to North Korea and Iran.

Jia said he isn’t worried that ReelShort will come under the same microscope. Crazy Maple Studio is headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif., and emphasizes that it has no audience in China. It does, however, have an office in Shenzhen and remains 49 percent owned by Beijing-based COL. (Jia owns the remainder.)

At the very least, Jia expects the company’s growth will have fewer ups and downs than the “Snatched a Billionaire” story arc. Over the course of the show’s next 10 minutes, the lead’s mother wakes up from a coma and her ex’s handsome uncle gives her $50,000. Insults, accusations and multiple punches are thrown.

“When they first saw the app, some people said, ‘I can’t believe someone would pay for this,’” said Jia. “Our answer is: You think you understand the entire entertainment market? You don’t.”

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