In the past few weeks, copyright movies, both foreign and domestic, have been beaten as the most popular types of film on China's leading video-hosting site Youku.com. Instead, the company's own short productions have taken the top spot.
Starting in August, Youku has released a series of 10 short films as part of the company's efforts to cash in on original content for its site. The project, titled "11 Degrees," is aimed at Youku's core audience of younger college-educated Chinese users looking for more diverse content.
Like other video-hosting sites in China, Youku has yet to become profitable, even as the company claims to attract 30 million unique visitors a day. But the company says it sees promise in investing in original content.
Currently, about 70 percent of Youku's videos are licensed, with 25 percent user generated. The remaining 5 percent belongs to the company's original content, which includes Web serials, viral ads and now the 11 Degrees project.
So far, the company's original content has been popular with site users, said Stella Pan, vice president of Youku Originals. Furthermore, sponsors are eager to sign up with the projects, ensuring that their investment can generate revenue. "We expect business will be good for this content," Pan added, noting that the company hopes to grow its library of company-backed original videos.
For the 11 Degrees project, Youku partnered with China Film Group and enlisted 11 different directors to create 10 short films 10 to 20 minutes long and one feature-length film combining them together. The common theme behind the movies is their focus on the struggles of today's younger generation, a factor which Pan says has connected with many Youku users. In total, the 11 Degrees film series has received more than 5 million views in less than a month.
One of the films, "The Early Harvest," deals with a man in his 20s meeting his future 57-year-old self. The story shows how China's younger generation is yearning to grow older and receive respect, said the film's director Zhuang Yuxin, who became involved with the 11 Degrees project after being approached by Youku.
"This is really a new way of looking at how films are produced," Zhuang said. "I came to this opportunity wanting to understand how this new media is different from more traditional forms."
Short films are more rare in Chinese cinema, but they are common on video-hosting sites, Zhuang said. However, in China many of these videos often only center on comedy. Now, Youku is experimenting with new genres and styles to gauge what Internet users are looking for. Zhuang's film, which debuted last week, already has 1.3 million views.
"I don't know how good my movie is," Zhuang said. "But I don't think its hard to get 1 to 2 million views when Youku is promoting it."
As of June, China had 265 million online video users, according to the China Internet Network Information Center. Other Chinese video sites are also producing their own original content like Tudou, which is developing its own drama series.
Youku can't say how expansive its original content will be in the future, only that it's in a phase of experimentation. But even as more users in the country take to the Web to view films and TV shows, the company has noted that users tend to watch shorter videos. Some of the most popular videos on Youku include television series, which attract total views in the hundreds of millions.
"I don't know how long Internet films will be in the future. If it's one hour, two hours, or if it's five to 10 minutes. I think there's a lot of possibilities," Zhuang said. "This industry is still developing."
But for now longer films are better suited for the movie theater, said Yin Lichuan, who directed the short film "Ai" with the 11 Degrees project. The story talks about two background actors who fall for each other as they pursue their life goals.
"A lot of people like to watch movies online. But I still love watching movies in the theater," she said.