The End of Popcorn and Dimming Lights?

May 18, 2011
*Special to asia!
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With over 33 million views to date, “Old Boy” is leading the way for non-mainstream movies to win over audiences – via the Internet.


As always, in the massive market that is China, the numbers speak for themselves. Take “Old Boy”, the latest runaway movie hit that has captured the nation’s imagination. It’s been watched more than 33 million times (and still counting), outperforming even the revered Zhang Yimou’s “Under the Hawthorn Tree”, which was released around the same time last October.

A nostalgic comedy about two ordinary men pursuing their dreams, “Old Boy” purportedly left viewers – including many men – in tears.

It “mov[ed] people of all ages, with many…shedding tears over their youth, commending it as a rare example of a fine domestically produced piece of work,” reports ChinaSMACK, a popular Chinese content/translation service website.

But just don’t expect to find “Old Boy” playing at a cinema near you. Forget about queuing for the tickets and the popcorn. For the 43-minute “Old Boy” is a Web movie that can be viewed only on Youku, China’s biggest video hosting Web service. Youku, which means “what’s best and cool” in Chinese, uses a special technology that prevents others from downloading or sharing the movie.

Directed by 31-year-old TV commercial director Xiao Yang, “Old Boy” is part of a wider trend that is shaping Chinese film distribution today. “Chinese filmmakers are already ahead of the curve with regards to having their films distributed via the Internet,” says Brent Quan Hall, vice president, Marketing & Operations, of dGenerate Films, a distributor of Chinese independent movies based in the U.S.

Fans take matters into their own hands and help to distribute the movies they like, he says. Also, the low cost of Internet distribution – versus the more demanding traditional model of securing theatre space or screening at film festivals – and the plain accessibility of such Web movies make Internet distribution the way to go.

“The Internet is a great opportunity for filmmakers outside of the mainstream to get their work shown,” Hall tells asia!. “We hear every day from fans from throughout the world, from Australia to South America to Europe, who in the past would never be able to find these (Chinese) films. The Internet has made all this possible.”

Frank Wei, senior vice president of Youku, is of a similar view. “We have faith in the power of the Web as a launch pad…for helping artists [to] tell their stories,” he says in a press release. Youku, which together with the China Film Group and GM Chevrolet, sponsored the making of “Old Boy”, says it aims to create films that will “engage the site’s young, professional viewers”.

In this, Youku appears fairly restrained in its filmmaking ambitions. Despite the power of the Internet to reach a greater global audience, the company’s horizon remains, at least for now, purely Chinese – even though its shares are listed in the U.S.

“At the current stage, we see more original content more tailored to the Chinese audience,” says Stella Pan, vice president of Youku Original, in an e-mail interview.

“To take the Chopsticks Brothers (makers of “Old Boy”) as an instance. The success, to a great extent, depends on the issues they explore [which] are highly relevant for China’s younger generation. Thus, it may require a deep understanding of China’s culture and society to appreciate the film.”

Again, numbers could play a part. Youku remains a loss-making business (it announced a net loss of 37.7 million yuan for Q4 of 2010 in March); and while viewership figures for “Old Boy” were impressive, it’s unknown how they could translate into actual profits for Youku and its filmmakers. (Youku couldn’t disclose financial figures for the project.)

In contrast, China’s film box-office takings are forecast to grow to 40 billion yuan in 2015, which would make the country the world’s second-biggest film market. And foreign productions are often among the best-grossing films in China.

“It is harder than ever for a filmmaker to make a living off it (showing movies on the Internet),” Hall of dGenerate Films says.

“There are now more filmmakers than ever competing for viewers and funding. The best and savviest of these filmmakers have great opportunities opened to them; the majority of them will have to settle for some recognition with little money.”

Meanwhile film lovers should just profit from the outburst of creativity that the rise of the Internet has unleashed in filmmakers. The Chopsticks Brothers, of “Old Boy” fame, have released another movie, “The Ultimate Winner”. It premiered on Youku in April and has already some 10.5 million views.

For cinephiles eager to discover the best of Chinese independent filmmaking, dGenerate Films offers online “Video On-Demand” that takes the form of streaming or digital download at US$5 per view. Available on Amazon, Mubi, Indieflix and Fandor, the selection is outstanding. Among the fiction titles, check out “The Other Half”, named one of top 10 films of 2008 by The New Yorker; “Enter the Clowns” from China’s first gay filmmaker, Cui Zi’en; and Betelnut. The fascinating documentaries are not to be missed either.

caddy lee

A former financial and business journalist, Bernice Tang's other areas of interest include China, literature and the arts.