Chinese Streamer Huanxi Premium Acquires Hit U.K. Series 'Bodyguard' (Exclusive)

Bodyguard Still - H - 2018
Credit: World Productions

The ambitious company is upping its investments in international content as it tries to carve out a niche as China's high-quality online video destination.

China's fast-growing, high-end video platform Huanxi Premium has acquired exclusive streaming rights to the hit British drama series Bodyguard.

The company will premiere the show's six-episode first season in China later this year. Huanxi inked the deal for Bodyguard with ITV Studios Global Entertainment, owner of World Productions, the Emmy-nominated show's producer.

The pickup fits in with Huanxi's strategy of leveraging prestige film and TV content from at home and abroad to fill a niche within the Chinese video landscape — the world's second-largest streaming market by both revenue and subscribers. The company has likened its ambitions to becoming something akin to a trusted HBO-like brand, targeting a more discerning slice of the Middle Kingdom's massive streaming audience.

Created and written by Jed Mercurio, Bodyguard tells the story of David Budd (Richard Madden, of Game of Thrones fame), a heroic but volatile war veteran who, when assigned to protect the ambitious Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), finds himself torn between his duty and his values.

Following its premiere last year, the show became the most-watched BBC drama of the past decade, drawing over 17 million viewers in the U.K. Madden won an Emmy for best performance by an actor in a television drama, and the show as a whole was also nominated for best TV drama. Bodyguard is streamed by Netflix in the U.S. and other international markets.

Huanxi Premium is the video platform arm of film and television studio Huanxi Media Group, a rising powerhouse of the Chinese industry. The company was co-founded in 2015 by film biz 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 Steven Xiang joined the company soon after as CEO.

Huanxi has made its mark on the Chinese entertainment business in impressive speed, thanks to a series of exclusive partnerships signed with some of China's most influential filmmakers. 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 well above the weight of a typical startup studio. Huanxi's theatrical film releases so far include Jia's critically acclaimed Cannes competition entry Ash Is Purest White; Xu's social dramedy blockbuster Dying to Survive ($451 million); and 2019 Chinese New Year hit, Crazy Alien ($328 million), directed by Ning.

Outside of the multiplex, Huanxi is leveraging the star power of its filmmaker partners to bootstrap a subscriber base for its direct-to-consumer streaming platform, Huanxi Premium. The company says it plans to forgo the sizable licensing revenue it could earn from selling the online rights for its blockbuster films to China's established "big three" video services, iQiyi, Tencent Video and Alibaba's Youku. Instead, the studio's films will only be made available online to Huanxi Premium's own users. Since Huanxi fully owns the films it produces, it also is able to shorten the theatrical window for some of its blockbusters, often putting them online within just four to six weeks of their theatrical release.

Huanxi Premium will never be able to compete at scale with the big three, but the company's CEO, Xiang, has said he believes there is a robust business segment to be won as a differentiated high-quality channel.  

Picking up exclusive rights to boutique international content is also part of the plan. The company says it has bought China rights to over 30 high-quality overseas movies and TV series to date. Earlier this year, for example, the service acquired 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 critically acclaimed period soccer film The Keeper.

So far, the strategy appears to be showing promise, according to the company. Huanxi Premium launched in September 2018, and by the start of 2019 the service had 300,000 registered users. Following the success of Ning Hao's Crazy Alien — which began streaming exclusively on Huanxi Premium just four weeks after opening on the first day of Chinese New Year — the service now counts approximately 3 million users.

Huanxi's growth also has been boosted by the $50 million strategic investment it received from Chinese ticketing giant Maoyan in March. The deal gave Huanxi an injection of working capital — helpful given how much the company has splashed out on signing directors — but acquiring Maoyan as a strategic online partner was even more valuable. Following the deal, Huanxi Premium's video offerings became integrated with Maoyan's flagship app, which is estimated to account for as much as 60 percent of all movie ticket sales in China. Huanxi Premium's heightened visibility within Maoyan has undoubtedly been a key driver of the video service's subscriber growth.

Several of the directors in Huanxi's stable also are developing longform drama series for the platform — including Wong Kar Wai and Zhang Yibai. Huanxi says more marquee content acquisitions from abroad are also to come in the months ahead.