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Why Chinese apps chose to film super-short soap operas in Southeast Asia

To keep the production budget low, FlexTV is tapping the vibrant English-speaking creative community in countries like Thailand and the Philippines.

February 28, 2024
in front of a bed of roses, a hand holds a cell phone with the promo image for the online soap opera, "Mr Williams! Madame is Dying"
MITTR | FlexTV, Envato

This story first appeared in China Report, MIT Technology Review’s newsletter about technology in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

TikTok has become an essential part of the digital landscape. Whether or not it’s ultimately banned in the United States (my bet is it won’t be), these short videos have transformed large parts of our lives, from how music is consumed to how political messages are communicated. 

Some Chinese companies believe short videos can disrupt the movie and TV industry, too. Today, I published a story on how a batch of Chinese apps are trying to introduce the US audience to drama series made up of two-minute-long segments viewed on a smartphone, a digital phenomenon that has become unexpectedly popular in China in recent years. 

These shows are “soap operas for the TikTok age,” as one of my interviewees put it. One such series usually contains about 90 two-minute episodes, and the content is often simple: dramatic stories about love, wealth, sex, and mystery, told through low-budget productions. To my surprise, these short dramas have found a huge audience in China, adding up to a $5 billion market.

FlexTV is one of the Chinese companies that believe these shows will also appeal to the American audience. Not only has FlexTV been translating and dubbing short drama series that were successful in China, but it’s also filming new productions in English to better adapt to the local market. They have even begun shooting in Los Angeles, taking advantage of the first-class movie industry there.

But what surprised me when I talked to FlexTV was the realization that the industry is not just about China and the United States. Specifically, it has chosen Southeast Asia as both a target market and a production hub.

For Chinese tech companies, Southeast Asia has often been the first frontier of expansion outside the domestic market. This is where Chinese smartphone, e-commerce, gaming, and even electric-vehicle companies have all chosen to export their products first before growing into the rest of the world. 

Southeast Asia also responds well to China’s cultural exports too. When tech giants like Tencent and Baidu wanted to internationalize their streaming platforms, it was the only region where they saw some success. So it’s not surprising that FlexTV chose Thailand as one of the first countries in which to release its app, and it has made quite a lot of shows in the Thai language so far. 

The company is also filming content there for the global English-speaking market.

Eren Kereci is a 30-year-old Turkish actor living in the Philippines. At the end of 2022, he joined the production of a short drama called The Bride of the Wolf King in Tagaytay, a city south of Manila. While he didn’t know at the time that this show would eventually be released on FlexTV, he did know he was acting in a drama shot for the vertical screen.

“It was like theater acting while trying to stay in such a small frame. We were advised to make more facial expressions, since our body movements were limited due to vertical filming,” Kereci tells me. 

Also, because the scripts were originally in Chinese (they were likely adapted from a web novel, as is the case with most short dramas), parts of them didn’t translate well. “Some of the text didn’t make sense due to translation, so as actors, we made slight adjustments on the spot,” he says. 

Kereci didn’t interact with anyone from China during the filming. The production was carried out by a Filipino team. Sitting at a crossroads between major cultures, Southeast Asia has plenty of English-speaking creatives, making it possible to produce short dramas there that cater to the global audience.

The location also offers significant savings on production costs. According to Xiangchen Gao, the chief operations officer of FlexTV, filming a show in Thailand costs between $40,000 and $80,000. A similar production in the US would cost double that amount. That’s a significant advantage when the whole business model revolves around quick content that isn’t worth big-budget production. Going forward, FlexTV will continue to film in both the United States and Thailand, Gao tells me.

There could be more Chinese companies joining FlexTV and similar apps in producing short dramas overseas. The Chinese government is looking to regulate this medium more strictly, just as it’s done with film and TV. Some short-video firms will probably move their business abroad in response.

I’m curious to observe how these productions will be received by the global audience in the long run. Despite the size of China’s economy, its cultural industries are not very influential, at least relative to Japanese anime or Korean dramas and music groups. Will short dramas be the game-changers here? Maybe not. But they could be an important step, helping the Chinese entertainment industry learn about the global market and leading the global audience to understand more about China. That wouldn’t be a bad outcome after all.

Do you think these short dramas can replicate their success in markets outside China? Tell me your thoughts at zeyi@technologyreview.com.


Now read the rest of China Report

Catch up with China

1. Two influential Chinese bloggers in exile have been sharing uncensored news about the country on overseas social media. Now the police are tracking down their followers in China, one by one. (Associated Press)

  • “Teacher Li,” one of the bloggers, rose to prominence in late 2022 when he tirelessly collected and shared information on the White Paper protests in China. I talked to him at the time about the toll the work had taken on him. (MIT Technology Review)

2. Leaked internal documents from a Chinese cybersecurity firm suggest it has been surveilling ethnic minorities in China and neighboring countries on behalf of the Chinese government. (Wall Street Journal $)

3. It’s been years since I heard that Shein, the viral fast-fashion brand, wanted to go public. But it seems it will need to wait longer. The company is now considering listing in London, since it’s worried the US Securities and Exchange Commission won’t approve its IPO. (Bloomberg $)

4. To diversify its supply chain away from China, Google is starting to make its Pixel smartphones in India. (Nikkei Asia $)

5. Oops—TikTok is having another small problem in the US. Its New York City office has been infested with bedbugs. (The Information $

6. Nvidia just identified Huawei as one of its top competitors in making chips used for artificial intelligence. (Reuters $)

7. A few Chinese policies have been points of contention in US-China relations—they promote the two-way transfer of military-civil technologies and drive out foreign players in cloud infrastructure. Now it’s reported that a think tank led by McKinsey advised the Chinese government in drawing up these policies. (Financial Times $)

Lost in translation

Chinese drugmakers are hot on the international market now, but it’s not necessarily a good thing for the domestic biotech industry. According to the Chinese publication Caixin, Chinese pharmaceutical companies set a new record in 2023 for licensing their innovative treatments to foreign companies. And in just the first month of 2024, they sold another 15 licensing deals, totaling over $10 billion in prospective revenue. 

It’s certainly a testament to the research capabilities of Chinese pharmaceutical companies, but company executives told Caixin it’s also a result of the industry’s urgent need for cash. Since 2019, Chinese biotech companies have found it increasingly harder to raise money, and the amount of venture investment in biotech keeps falling. To survive the capital crunch, some biotech companies are forced to sell their research progress for cheap to multinational giants. While these deals can provide temporary financial relief, the industry is still waiting for macro trends to become favorable again.

One more thing

In last week’s newsletter, I mentioned that a knockoff version of Apple’s Vision Pro is sold in China now. Well, there’s another way for Apple fans to experience the VR technology without paying the hefty price, according to the South China Morning Post: savvy merchants are renting out the headsets they bought abroad. For $13.60, anyone can try it out for one hour. More than 10,000 people have paid for the privilege.

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