Saturday, Jul 22, 2017, 8:54 AM CST – China



Move Toward Mainstream

Internet shorts, dubbed “micro-movies,” are growing in popularity, but how long can this fringe genre escape official censorship?

TV anchor Du Haitao (left) stars as a cookie seller and microblogger in the recently released Internet micro-movie @Who Who

Du Haitao, a well-known talk show host, is attempting to sell cookies on the street while wearing a chicken costume. Not a bizarre PR stunt, but rather a scene from a short film entitled @Who Who. Du plays a nobody who tries to change his fate by pretending to be a famous writer on a microblog while selling cookies in the real world.

The movie’s running time of 22 minutes and 21 seconds makes it perfect for screening online. @Who Who, the final episode of the Haunted Microblog Trilogy, attracted more than 10 million clicks in only a couple of days. Fronted by a celebrity, the fast-paced and professionally produced short movie also gently satirized the microblogging trend without being too controversial.

All these qualities have made China’s so-called “micro-movies” a big success story. Much shorter and cheaper to produce than a full-length movie and screened almost exclusively online, these movies attract large audiences and, as a result, some of the biggest movie stars, directors, studios, websites and advertisers in the industry.


“The difference from traditional movies is huge,” @Who Who director Guo Zhengding told our reporter. “Production is very short. The story is short. It needs to be more delicate. Normally, you can’t have several story lines, just one, well-narrated plot.

“The script is more detailed. Every shot needs to be written down and meticulously designed so it can be completed in one take. There’s no time for retakes,” he added.

Limited budgets mean that micro-movies, for example the three parts of the Haunted Microblog Trilogy, have limited investment. The full trilogy cost less than 3 million yuan (US$473,000) to make, with each director allowed a three-day shoot. “Ideally, I need a week to shoot a short movie,” said Guo Zhengding. “So we had to work day and night for three days. I got in about two hours’ sleep a day.”

Limited budgets are of similarly limited appeal to China’s highest-paid movie stars, however increasing numbers seem willing to waive their usual fee for a “friendly price” if a movie seems to have enough clout. “The actors are well aware of the influence of micro-movies,” said Wang Yue, media director of Linksus, a local PR company who produced Haunted Microblog. “Also, their eventual fee will depend on how well we promote the movie.”

A short running time, limited budget and widespread market has made the micro-movie particularly popular with advertisers. A large number of the earliest professionally produced short Internet movies were simple extended commercials or a series of product placement sketches attached to a token plotline. The three directors of Haunted Microblog all have backgrounds in music videos and commercials. However, as audience expectations have developed, enthusiasm for blatant advertising has waned. The Haunted Microblog Trilogy featured no product placement, with the filmmakers aiming instead to make legitimate movies grounded in social realities.

Youth Wave

“The term ‘micro-movie’ was coined by some industry professionals to distinguish these works from feature films or art house shorts,” Jin He, director of Private Messages, the second episode of Haunted Microblog, told NewsChina. “The problem is now the term ‘micro-movie’ is becoming stretched to mean any short movie.” He added that the loose application of the term has led to a gulf in quality between the best and worst works in the genre.

Despite plenty of hacks seeking to profit from the new trend, micro-movies have opened access for young and inexperienced directors to experiment and gain critical acclaim without needing to break into mainstream cinema. Other directors used to commercial projects in music or advertizing have also branched into micro-movies as a more creative outlet.

In December 2010 an automobile commercial entitled Imminent, complete with a trailer and a national premiere, claimed to be China’s first micro-movie. However, it was the release of the short Old Boys in late October 2010, a 42-minute drama centering on two people in their late 20s recalling their younger days which kick-started a nationwide nostalgia for the 1980s and became massively successful. Advertisers and investors, smelling potential profits, flocked to the short movie genre as offering quick rewards for minimal outlay.

“In the past, there were no investors for micro-movies,” Guo Zhengding told NewsChina. “But since May 2011, everyone has started to pay attention - not only advertisers, but actual production companies are also joining the trend. It is a good opportunity for young directors.”

Meanwhile, shooting micro-movies has become a boot camp for those wishing to cut their teeth in the movie industry. “Shooting micro-movies is like a buffer for directors who aim to shoot features later on,” said director Jin He. “It’s a process of self-reflection and self-awareness. Every time you shoot a micro-movie, you find shortcomings. After shooting ten micro-movies, you may still find shortcomings. If all these shortcomings appeared in one full-length movie, it would be a disaster.”

Matter of Time

Another popular feature of micro-movies is that they fall outside the jurisdiction of State censorship. “For traditional movies to be licensed for public performance, they must first be approved (and potentially re-edited) by both SARFT (the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television) and CFGC (the China Film Group Corporation), which usually takes a long time,” said Song Huanyu, general manager of Linksus. Before a movie can even commence production, it has to have its script, locations, production schedule, cast and crew all approved by various authorities. This process, as well as being expensive, tends to leech creativity out of a production as compromises have to be reached with government cadres, the police and the filmmakers themselves.

“Micro-movies, so long as they don’t infringe copyright, don’t need a license. We can produce and release in a short time. Basically, there’s no censorship,” Song added.

“Don’t shoot pornography or nudity and don’t talk about the Party or politics,” said Jin He. “Other than that, anything goes.”

However, Jin believes it is only a matter of time before the government will seek to restrict the development of micro-movies. “The Internet is highly tolerant. But if controversial works became too popular, it would rouse official attention, and might be banned,” he said.

Indeed, there are already signs that the Ministry of Culture and its associated organs are beginning to take an interest in the micro-movie phenomenon, with some filmmakers believing it’s only a question of when, not if, censorship applied to more mainstream entertainment comes to apply to their works as well. Some, controversially, have said they would welcome a certain degree of qualitative censorship. “Many popular Internet shorts are just nonsensical,” said Song Huanyu. “We are opposed to this, and are happy to conform to SARFT requirements.”

“We hope to maximize the benefits of those who participate in building the micro-movie platform. Therefore, we will still adopt the distribution methods of traditional movies,” he added.

(Liu Min and Jiang Xiaobin
also contributed reporting)

Tags: internet, micro-movies, film production, censorship

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