Minute-long soap operas are here. Is America ready?
When Albie Zhang got an offer to create a scrappy short-form feature for phones last spring, he was skeptical, and so, he declined.
But the offers kept coming. Ultimately, Ms. Zhang, who has been a producer for 12 years, realized this could be a profitable new way of telling stories and said yes.
Since last summer, she's produced two short-form features and is working on four more for several apps that are creating cookie-cutter content for women.
Imagine: a Lifetime movie cut into a TikTok video. Think: soap opera, but for the short attention spans of the Internet age.
The biggest player in this new genre is ReelShort, an app that delivers melodramatic content in minute-long, vertically shot episodes and is bringing a successful formula established overseas to the United States by engaging millions of people with its short-form content. Is expecting.
ReelShort is owned by Northern California company Crazy Maple Studios, which is backed by Beijing-based digital publisher COL Group.
Reelshort titles include “The Double Life of My Billionaire Husband,” “I Got Married Without You” and “Bound by Vendetta: Sleeping with the Enemy.” The shows are formulaic: the plot involves romance and revenge, the characters are archaic and the dialogue is simplistic.
The extremely minimalist style gained popularity in the Asia-Pacific region during the pandemic, and Crazy Maple Studio chief executive Joey Jia took note.
The goal of ReelShort is to hook people in as quickly as possible, with most of the action happening in the first few super short episodes. “It’s a pay-as-you-go model,” Mr Zia said. “If people are confused by the story, they leave.”
According to Crazy Maple Studios, the cost to build these features is relatively low, $300,000 or less. According to actors working on the production, the crew is small and partly composed of recent film graduates in Los Angeles.
Viewers can watch dozens of minute-long episodes on ReelShort for free through multiple platforms, including YouTube and TikTok. But at some point, they will have to either pay or watch ads to unlock later episodes.
Sometimes people pay as much as $10 or $20 just to keep watching, said producer Ms. Zhang. “Isn’t this a crazy business?”
In December, Mr Zia told wall street journal The company had already made $22 million in revenue.
In the United States, ReelShort is trying to succeed where short-form content company Quibi failed. Quibi was launched in early 2020 and shut down the same year, partly due to its founder Jeffrey Katzenberg's poor timing: The app offered five- to 10-minute videos of news and entertainment to people, At the same time when people had stopped going anywhere. Due to pandemic lockdown.
And while Quibi focused on more highbrow content with A-list stars, ReelShort is doing the opposite: It's giving people juicy plot points, from werewolves to evil stepmothers to secret billionaire husbands to more werewolves. till.
“We learned a lot from Quibi,” said Mr. Jia, the Crazy Maple Studios executive. That said, ReelShort isn't trying to appeal to everyone, as Quibi tried to do.
“To build a successful mobile app, you have to find your core audience,” he said. And that audience is women who like soap operas. (ReelShort's viewership is about 75 percent female, Mr. Jia said.)
Mr Jia said he was not trying to compete with streamers like Netflix. If you're free to sit on your couch for a few hours, ReelShort probably isn't the app you're looking for. It's for those in-between moments: at the bus stop, in the bathroom.
“We are using a very different business model,” Mr. Jia said, “and serving a different time.”
ReelShort is hardly the first app owned or partially owned by a Chinese company to make its way to the United States. TikTok and shopping apps Shein and Teemu have been the most downloaded apps in Apple's US App Store in recent months.
But this has been problematic for TikTok, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance. Lawmakers in the United States, Europe and Canada have expressed concerns that TikTok and its parent company could put people's sensitive personal information into the hands of the Chinese government, and have worked to restrict access to the hugely popular app. . ReelShort has not faced such pressure.
Last month, ReelShort was downloaded one million times and generated $5 million in revenue in Apple's App Store, according to data firm Sensor Tower, and it was downloaded three million times in the Google Play Store, leading to Revenue of $3 million was earned there. Since November, ReelShort has ranked in the top 15 of the most popular entertainment apps across both app stores on most days. (For a few days in November, ReelShort even overtook TikTok as the most popular entertainment app in Apple's App Store.)
According to data.ai, more than seven million people downloaded ReelShort in total on Apple and Android phones in the United States in 2023. There were more than 24 million downloads worldwide last year. After the United States, India is ReelShort's next largest market, followed by the Philippines.
Los Angeles-based actor Casey Essar, who has worked on short-form shows for ReelShort and other apps, described the format as the soap opera of this generation. He compared it to channels with made-for-TV content, such as Hallmark.
“People know exactly what story they're going to get, but they'll watch it anyway,” said Mr. Esser, 34. “They'll still love it.”
For actress Samantha Drews, the reelshort was a chance to play a variety of characters. “I can say now that I've been cast in 15 to 16 feature films in the last few years,” said Ms. Drews, 25. “It's not something every actor can say.”
Camille James Harman, 57, had a supporting role in the 2018 film “Vice,” the Dick Cheney biopic starring Christian Bale that received multiple Oscar nominations. But she said she got a lot of feedback for her role as an evil stepmother in the 2023 reelshort production “The Double Life of My Billionaire Husband.”
A number of other apps whose names are still unknown to many – Serial+, ShortTV, DramaBox, FlexTV – have begun creating similar features in hopes of capitalizing on ReelShort's formula.
The number of new titles arriving on these platforms is greater than that of many traditional streaming services. And if it's up to Mr Zia, it will continue in 2024: “The target this year is to get another 100 titles,” he said.
Leomax Hay, who directed three productions for the app last year, said the production quality is getting better as ReelShort expands its content. Some shoots now employ a stunt or intimacy coordinator.
“The budgets have gotten bigger, the cameras have gotten better, the staff is getting bigger,” said Mr. Hay, 27.
Major studios have not dabbled in the genre yet, but some actors and filmmakers have speculated that American companies will soon begin creating their own short-form content.
“That's why I'm doing a lot of these,” said Mr. Esser, the actor. “This is a unique opportunity to become the first known of these in the US.”