Chinese Streamer Huanxi Premium Acquires BBC Miniseries 'World on Fire' (Exclusive)

'World on Fire'

The pickup of the Helen Hunt-starring period drama is part of Huanxi's expansion plans for 2020, which also include launching a documentary streaming channel and releasing two tentpole films during Chinese New Year.

Huanxi Premium, the startup streaming service targeting China's prestige video consumers, has acquired the exclusive local rights to World on Fire, the upcoming WWII period series from the BBC.

The streamer plans to launch the show in early 2020, supporting the release with a major marketing campaign in upscale urban centers across China.

Created and written by Peter Bowker, World on Fire stars Oscar winner Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets, Cast Away), BAFTA-winner Sean Bean (Game of Thrones) and Oscar nominee Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread, Maleficent). Described as a "heart-stopping, multi-stranded drama," the seven-episode miniseries tells the story of the vertiginous early days of World War II through the lives of ordinary people on all sides of the conflict.

Huanxi has built up its service around a strategy of becoming a trusted, HBO-like brand for China's more discerning content consumers. Given the massive scale of China's video sector — currently the world's second-largest by both revenue and subscribers — Huanxi believes there is a sizable business to be captured by winning a white-collar and well-educated slice of the market.

The pickup of World on Fire follows several other recent international content acquisitions from Huanxi over the past year, including exclusive China rights to the BBC's hit thriller Bodyguard and ITV's forthcoming Snowpiercer series, as well as European film festival favorites like Julian Schnabel's Vincent Van Gogh biopic At Eternity's Gate, German filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's Oscar nominee Never Look Away, and the period soccer film The Keeper.

Huanxi Premium is the video platform arm of film and television studio Huanxi Media Group, a rising powerhouse of the Chinese industry. The group was co-founded in 2015 by film business veteran Dong Ping (co-producer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and two of China's biggest directors, Xu Zheng (Lost in Hong Kong) and Ning Hao (Crazy Alien). Former attorney and cross-border dealmaker Steven Xiang joined the company soon after as CEO.

Huanxi has made its mark on the Chinese entertainment business at impressive speed, thanks to a series of exclusive partnerships signed with a collection of China's most influential filmmakers — whose work the company releases theatrically with industry partners, but then streams exclusively on its own video platform.

Wong Kar Wai, Zhang Yimou, Peter Chan and Zhang Yibai (Us and Them) all have deals and equity stakes in Huanxi, while other prominent directors — such as Cannes regular Jia Zhangke, Manfred Wong (The Storm Riders), Wang Xiaoshuai (Beijing Bicycle) and Li Yang (Blind Shaft) — are under contract. 

The pedigree of these partners has helped the company punch above the weight of a typical startup studio. Huanxi's theatrical film releases include this year's second-biggest title of Chinese New Year, Ning's Crazy Alien ($328 million), Jia's Cannes competition entry Ash Is Purest White, and Xu's 2018 blockbuster, Dying to Survive ($451 million).

By forgoing licensing deals, Huanxi has managed to acquire 1.2 million paying subscribers for its Huanxi Premium streaming service, despite the platform still being in its early rollout phase. Many of Huanxi's current activities, including its international acquisitions, are geared toward driving subscriber growth for Huanxi Premium in 2020.

The company says it plans to unveil a documentary film section within the service early next year. It is closing in on an array of documentary acquisitions for the new offering.

The studio's upcoming film slate also will go exclusively to Huanxi Premium, after a theatrical window of just four to eight weeks. The company expects its next two releases to be dominant players during Chinese New Year 2020.

Xu is set to return as writer, director and star of tentpole title Lost in Russia, the latest installment in his locally beloved Lost In franchise. Following in the footsteps of Lost in Thailand (2012) and Lost in Hong Kong (2015) — which together grossed $463 million — Lost in Russia will again combine elements of slapstick comedy, Chinese culture and fish-out-water travelogue, with the action transplanted to the Trans-Siberian Railway between Moscow and Beijing.

Influential Hong Kong filmmaker Peter Chan, meanwhile, is preparing to release his first feature for Huanxi, a sports drama about China's legendary 1984 summer Olympic Volleyball team. The film stars Gong Li as Chinese sporting icon Lang Ping.

Huanxi's 2020 originals slate also includes the delayed release of Zhang Yimou's much-anticipated drama One Second. That film was pulled from competition at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year in a shocking act of late-stage censorship by Beijing. But Huanxi is hopeful the film will finally see release at home in China early next year.

The company also has several high-profile series in various stages of development and production.

Zhang Yibai (I Belonged to You; $118 million in 2016) has wrapped shooting of Run for Young, a romantic drama series about a group of young Chinese millennials finding their way in the big city of Chongqing. It stars an ensemble of rising young talent, including Peng Yuchang (The Last Wish). The series will be followed by a big-screen film expansion of the story.

Wong Kar Wai is in development on a 12-episode series for Huanxi. Titled Paradise Guesthouse, the show centers on the female proprietor of a small hotel in a coastal town in mainland China, tracing her interactions with various guests.