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Much the way Netflix and Amazon have begun blitzing film markets throughout the West with their deep pockets and seemingly bottomless appetite for content, China’s streaming video giants are expected to play an increased role on the sales floor at Hong Kong’s Filmart this year.
“There is surely a bigger and bigger presence of the Chinese video streaming services at Filmart,” says Mia Sin, assistant distribution manager at Universe Films.
Video streaming is among the most fiercely contested areas of the Chinese entertainment landscape. Strict protectionism by Beijing regulators has prevented Netflix and Amazon from entering the massive mainland market, but the country’s three rival internet giants — Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, collectively known as “BAT” — are engaged in an ongoing battle for market share. Baidu’s iQiyi service, Alibaba-owned Youku Tudou and Tencent’s video platforms all continue to spend heavily on exclusive and original content to boost their user numbers.
Just last month, iQiyi restocked its war chest by raising $1.53 billion in fresh capital from investors. And just last week, on the eve of Filmart, the company scooped up exclusive rights to Oscar winners Moonlight, La La Land and best foreign language film The Salesman, from Asghar Farhadi.
Although bidding for Chinese content is a bonanza, China’s streamers have several reasons for being selective when it comes to acquiring overseas titles. In an effort to limit the influence of Western media online, China’s regulators require streaming sites to curtail overseas content to 30 percent of the online airtime given to domestic productions in the previous year. The rules have limited the volume of Hollywood content allowed onto Chinese platforms, but also upped the prices for the most in-demand shows and movies — usually award winners and films that scored big at the Chinese box office
Song Jia, iQiyi’s general manager of Film Acquisitions, says Filmart’s placement in March makes it the ideal time to preview and acquire high-quality European titles that have a good chance at landing in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May. “This year, in addition to premium European art films featuring famed actors, we also hope to purchase quality genre films, taking into consideration their commercial value,” Song says.
The ascendence of the streamers is also providing encouragement to China’s budding indie film community. Zhang Dalei’s low-budget period drama The Summer Is Gone, which won the best picture award at the Taipei Golden Horse awards in late 2016, recently was acquired by iQiyi for a healthy $400,000, for example.
“The video streaming services in China are the most mature among their category in Asia and they can offer a substantial license fee for a film,” says Virginia Leung, director of veteran Hong Kong sales outfit Distribution Workshop.
Founded in 2010 by Chinese entrepreneur Chen Tongang, Beijing-based Huashi TV, for example, acquires digital media rights to Chinese and international film and TV titles — including local rights for DVD, VOD, SVOD, OTT, IPTV, etc. — and re-licenses packages of content to China’s myriad mobile and online platforms, including the BAT services, as well as LeTV, Sohu, video apps from Chinese mobile phone makers and various regional IPTV services. The company has been such an aggressive behind-the-scenes buyer that it says it now holds the digital rights to a full 90 percent of all Hong Kong films ever made. The company also recently acquired the exclusive new media rights to Michael Fassbender’s Assassin’s Creed.
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