Is Vertical Video the Future of Streaming in China?

iQiyi
'Ugh! Life!' stars Lamuyangzi (left), aka "spicy eye"

Chinese streamer iQiyi's latest hit original 'Ugh! Life!' is comprised of 48 short episodes shot in portrait mode for smart phones. The company plans to release scores more high-end vertical series in 2019.

Chinese streaming giant iQiyi is often dubbed the "Netflix of China." It's a comparison the company's executives regularly describe as flattering but off base. 

As iQiyi's CEO Tim Gong Yu likes to point out, iQiyi's business model is more diverse than Netflix's pure subscription-based approach. The Chinese company does have a core subscription-video business, but it also derives much of its revenue from a free, ad-supported video platform, as well as services spanning mobile gaming, online publishing and e-commerce — much of it based around iQiyi's original IP. 

Now, the Chinese company is pushing into another area that further sets it apart from U.S. streaming services: high-end originals that are shot in vertical portrait mode specifically for consumption over phones and tablets. 

Netflix has said that approximately 20 percent of all video consumption on its platform is conducted via mobile devices; so far, though, the company has only introduced vertical previews of its shows, not full-length series in the format. 

"What we are trying to do is bring the same commitment to quality associated with our premium dramas to the field of shortform, portrait-mode video — something that has not yet been done," says Fu Tuo, general manager of iQiyi's in-house production banner Wright Studio. 

The company says its new vertical experiments are intended to capitalize on a simple reality: As much as Americans may feel tethered to their phones, Chinese internet users are even more mobile dependent. iQiyi declined to share a breakdown of how much of its video viewership occurs over mobile devices, but a representative for the company told THR that it is "considerably more than 50 percent."

Given that user-generated video — which is as wildly popular on Chinese social media services as it is on Snapchat and Instagram in the U.S. (both of which are blocked in China) — is both shot and consumed in portrait mode, iQiyi felt there was a natural opportunity producing professional-quality video content in the format, too. 

iQiyi released Ugh! Life!, its first attempt at an all-vertical original series, in late November. Comprised of 48 episodes running just 3-5 minutes in length, the comedy drama show quickly became a sensation, shooting to the top of iQiyi's public rankings of its most-streamed originals. The show attracted more than 10,000 online reviews in less than four days.

Ugh! Life! stars Li Jiaqi, a DIY viral video star turned actress who performs as "Lamuyangzi," a stage name inspired by the Chinese internet slang phrase "la yanjing" ("spicy eye"), meaning something too embarrassing or ridiculous to behold. Ugh! Life! follows Lamuyangzi through a range of everyday situations, involving family, work and typical errands or outings — all of which are given her signature self-deprecatory or satirical slant.

iQiyi's Fu Tuo, who produced the show, says his team adjusted its usual processes to make the storytelling work in bit-sized, vertical bursts, tweaking the pacing, composition and the positioning of actors. "Funny parts and punchlines are very concentrated, and they are as much as possible put near the beginning and the end of each episode," he says. A typical episode features a "punchline essentially every 5-10 seconds, so that a viewer is more likely to keep watching," Fu adds.

Shooting in portrait mode also required various production adaptations. The show's co-directors — Wu Rina, a member of the influential Beijing-based comedy troupe Mahua FunAge, and newcomer Liu Yafei — relied heavily on point-of-view shots "to more intimately depict people-to-people interactions," Fu explains. "Furthermore, we made prolific use of split-screen and multi-screen mode to convey more visual information to the viewer at any given time."

Ugh! Life! appears to have reached precisely the target audience iQiyi's development executives expected. According to the company's data, viewers under the age of 30 made up more than 75 percent of the show's audience, with 89 percent of the audience watching the show over a mobile device (the remaining 11 percent consumed it over a computer or smart TV).

Says Fu: "The drama has not only met but exceeded our expectations, making it an extremely good return on a comparatively small investment."

Ugh! Life! has been renewed for a second season, and iQiyi is already ramping up its vertical production plans. iQiyi's biggest rivals, Tencent Video and Alibaba-owned Youku, meanwhile, also have signaled that they are developing content in the format. 

"In 2019, iQiyi will start preparing more portrait-mode content," Fu says. "Aside from comedy, we have lots of fantastic in-house IP that we would love to try adapting into mini-reality shows, mini dramas or anime in vertical."