Small Movies with Huge Audiences
A scene from the micro film A Young Couple, one of the six shortlisted for the "Best Micro Web Film for the Year" at the SIFF Photo: Courtesy of SIFF
Even though university campuses are favored by newlyweds for their first photographs together as husband and wife, it was a rare event when 14 couples from the China University of Mining and Technology took their marriage vows at the campus in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province earlier this month. The student sweethearts, who were yet to graduate, had the honor of having the university president preside over their weddings.
Coincidentally, this high-profile wedding party echoed what was portrayed in the micro film I Do. The 20-minute film, which can be viewed on the Internet, tells of a pair of lovebirds who, against all odds, tie the knot the day they graduate from university.
An Internet sensation, the film captures the emerging trend of young couples choosing to shrug off nuptial traditions and wed with nothing but a certificate - a phenomenon dubbed "naked marriage" by the younger generation. A naked marriage does without ceremonies, guests, banquets or gifts. "I think it takes courage to pursue true love and this is admirable," Tian Meng, the director and screenwriter of the film I Do, said.
Tian's film was one of the six shortlisted for the "Best Micro Web Film for the Year" at the 15th Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF), which ended yesterday, as one of the Mobile SIFF awards. Though it didn't claim the top prize, the film is one of a growing number of micro films attracting thousands of hits on video websites.
With the development of new media and mobile devices, micro films are now a major trend in the film industry. "Without exception, China's major video websites are all making their own micro movies," Liu Siming, the general manager of Tudou's Original Programming Center, told the Global Times. "We have been making efforts to attract more investment and improve the quality of these films."
As an up-to-the-minute entertainment option for Internet users, micro films have become an Internet sensation. Youku, one of the country's most popular video websites, started producing its own online short movies in 2008 and has since launched a series of successful films. One of the company's early works, Old Boys, first aired in late 2010, has nailed over 47 million hits in cyberspace. Its sequel, Father, generated more than 2 million clicks on a single day when it was launched at the end of last year.
Qin Qi, a spokeswoman for the website, said, "Micro films have become a 'personality label' for video websites. Producing our own video content is the result of market demand as well as the need to build up our own brand." She said that micro films are products that bring in "multiple benefits" - they have helped provide new forms of advertising and amassed a range of good directors, actors and resources which help strengthen the website's brand recognition.
In China there are an estimated 400 million online video users and more than 100 million mobile phone video users. A large percentage of them are the tech-savvy younger generation. Micro films, which often last between 30 and 300 seconds, are perfect for those trying to squeeze in some entertainment whenever they have a break.
It's not just an easy option for audiences, but also for the production teams, according to Tian Meng. "It's much simpler to make a micro movie and you don't feel under so much pressure," he said. It only took him a half day to write the script and a crew of 40 took just three days to shoot his film.
Apart from offering an economic way for aspiring directors to exercise their ambitions, micro movies, Tian said, also catered to young audiences as the films often took a more "direct" approach and dealt with issues that involved young people. He said that his film I Do was inspired by the period before graduation when many university students have to take into consideration - and give priority to - practical goals.
"Many feel at a loss as they are at the crossroads of their lives. It is a time when many couples break up. It is a time when students in ivory towers realize they are going to have to face 'the real world,'" Tian said. It is this sense of uncertainty that many young people identify with which has captured their imaginations.
A low-cost alternative
While the boom in micro movies is partly the result of a growing need for content among web users, it is also a lower-cost alternative for video websites as the competition over intellectual property rights and copyright grows more intense.
The rights to a popular television series or movie can cost tens of millions of yuan, whereas video websites making their own shows can cut production costs and save distribution fees. It has been reported that qiyi.com, an online video subsidiary portal of Baidu, is planning to spend 200 million yuan ($31 million) making micro films this year.
In view of the increasing amount of funding video websites have allocated to online short films, it is no surprise that micro movies don't necessarily mean micro budgets. According to Liu Siming of Tudou, they often invest millions of yuan to ensure good-quality productions.
A growing trend is to include celebrity casts and crews. "We have films in line featuring big stars like Christine Fan, Elva Hsiao, Rainie Yang, Berlin Chen and Lin Chi-Ling," Liu said. Similarly, Youku has also launched a project in collaboration with famous directors and actors. Some of their big names include Gu Changwei, Ann Hui and Wang Xiaoshuai.
For a long time the major source of revenue for micro films has been from advertising. As new media attracts a vast amount of young people, it also attracts advertisers who are eager to reach this market segment and regard micro movies as a more cost-effective marketing model.
Now video websites can also expect to take a cut by selling their shows to traditional media. According to Liu Siming, Tudou is achieving "reverse sales" by successfully selling some of its television series and entertainment shows to television stations in Anhui, Guangdong and Taiwan. "It's a pioneering step to sell entertainment shows from the mainland to Taiwan," Liu said proudly.
"We are also exploring different profit models, including developing derivative products and expanding distribution channels," Qin Qi, of Youku, said. "We believe that positive competition will lead to bigger profit margins in the industry."
From ad to art
While micro films seem to benefit video websites, advertisers and audiences, there are concerns that the brevity of the films may come at the cost of artistic value. "As audiences are having higher expectations of the quality of micro movies, increasing the artistic substance of such films has become a more important issue," said Cui Zhaoqian, a scholar from the Journalism and Communications College of Zhengzhou University who has been researching micro films.
"If a film doesn't reflect society or lacks human interest, then it is just a meaningless pastime and will eventually lose its audience," Cui said. "Nowadays many films are merely publicity stunts and lacking creativity." In a report on the development of micro movies she concluded that only films with intriguing plots could expect long-term favorable reactions from audiences. She said filmmakers should balance the quantity and quality of micro films and avoid too much commercialization.
Tian Meng said directors and producers did have to consider their budgets carefully when they made films. "For example, if the production team cannot afford a scene in a luxury high-end restaurant, they might have to change the script and set the scene in a cheap sidewalk snack booth instead," he said. But he added that while money could enhance production standards, it didn't necessarily affect artistic standards. "The combination of a good story and a good command of techniques is the key to a good film," he said.
The fact that micro films are relatively new has also given them the opportunity to be more creative than their longer, bigger, older, and better-established brothers. Liu Siming said that there were certain formats that filmmakers followed to create certain atmospheres. "Just like poetry, there are four-line and eight-line verses. There are certain tricks writers use to achieve rhythm and there are methods filmmakers use to create tension," he said. While the old formulas for feature-length movies were proving to be outdated and less effective in engaging audiences, micro films were virgin territory open to people with creativity and talent.
Liu, who is also a prominent producer and man behind the success of many Taiwanese and Hong Kong music and film stars, said that he's been working on incorporating good pop music in micro films. "I've always thought that micro films should build their own features and values. They should not just become prolonged advertisements or music videos," he said. "A mere 12 to 15 minutes can have an independent story. The way of telling it is different from what we do in a 120-minute film or a 30-episode television series. And it is definitely something worth exploring."
Television host and director Steven Weathers, said: "Quality doesn't come from the budget or the length of a film. You really have to look at the final product, whether it's 20 seconds, 20 minutes or two hours." He said many television commercials lasting 30 seconds had bigger budgets than feature-length films or 30-episode television series when comparing production costs per finished minute.
Weathers submitted a two-minute film for the "I love Shanghai Short Films" competition at this year's Mobile SIFF. An experienced producer, he pieced together scenes he captured with his iPhone and footage shot with a Sony 800 HD video camera, resulting in a two-minute film about the city. It was his way of expressing his love and gratitude for the excitement the city offers for newcomers.
"Some films may be considered 'eye candy' and lacking in substance or depth. The format of a short film should not be judged. The end result should be. The format is just a result of media evolution as digital devices are getting smaller and smaller," he said.
Women focus their own cameras
As one of the highlights of this year's SIFF, organizers launched a series of four short films directed by female directors with the theme "Growth, Gratitude, Care and Beauty." The project aimed to express women's perspectives on a variety of issues.
Invited by the SIFF organizers, Hong Kong singer and actress Gigi Leung tried directing for the first time with her film Fortune Cookie. Leung, who was involved in writing the script, portrayed the lead character in the film. The story is about a biscuit store owner who explores life through her customers. Leung said her multiple roles in the production were "interesting and challenging."
Like Leung, actress Huang Yi also tried the director's seat. In her directorial debut Exchange, Huang told the story of a university student from Guizhou Province who managed to build a new school building using her incredible skills at bartering.
My Love was directed by the young Jin Yimeng, who made her name with the film Sophie's Revenge which featured stars like Zhang Ziyi and Fan Bingbing. Her short film My Love tells the story of how a terminally ill woman addresses problems at the very end of her life. Another film directed by Tian Yuan tells of a woman psychologist and her relationships with her patients.