Micro-dramas boom at home and overseas as authorities rein in vulgar content

Zhang Long
Micro-dramas have become hugely profitable on the Chinese market in 2023, with 50 percent of the viewers of short dramas under 19 years old.
Zhang Long

This year, 2023, is believed to be the first hugely profitable year for micro-dramas in the Chinese market. Short dramas have become a hot investment project throughout the year, creating one instant millionaire after another.

Just one minute into one of these dramas, an ordinary and timid son-in-law transforms into the influential alpha male of the family.

Three minutes in, a once-abandoned husband completes a magnificent transformation and takes revenge. Five minutes in, witness how an average Joe becomes a business genius and wins the business battle.

Usually, the first eight to 12 episodes of these short dramas are free, then, to unlock further episodes, viewers have to either pay or watch accompanying ads.

Micro-dramas boom at home and overseas as authorities rein in vulgar content

Screenshots from some episodes of the micro-drama 'Unparalleled.'

On average, the cost per episode ranges from a few jiao to 2 or 3 yuan (28 to 41 US cents). Of course, there's also an annual subscription option.

As of December 2022, the short video user base reached 1.012 billion, with over half of the billion users having watched micro-dramas and other short content, lasting less than 3 minutes, in the past six months. Among them, users under 19 years old accounted for more than 50 percent, according to an industry report.

Famous Chinese micro-dramas such as "Hey! The Queen is Coming to Work" accumulated over 12 million in user payment recharges within 24 hours, "Soaring Dragon" exceeded 22 million in 24 hours, and "Dragon Transformation" broke 23 million within 24 hours. Such numbers appeared on the micro-drama crews' celebration cakes.

Micro-dramas boom at home and overseas as authorities rein in vulgar content

A poster advertises the micro-drama "Dragon Transformation."

To cash in the micro-dramas' popularity, China Literature, a subsidiary of China's tech giant Tencent, which owns a plethora of popular novel copyrights, has officially ventured into producing short dramas.

Currently, the daily market value of paid short dramas on all domestic platforms is around 60 million yuan. During peak seasons such as the National Day holiday, the market value exceeded 1 billion yuan.

The entire short drama market value in 2023 may surpass 20 billion yuan, equivalent to 66 percent of the domestic film box office in 2022. The industry chain cultivated by the film industry for decades has been achieved in just two years for short dramas.

Many in the industry believe that it is impossible to give an exact number of such micro-dramas, for they do not need to register with China's National Radio and Television Administration.

There are probably more than 100 short drama crews starting up in Hengdian World Studios alone, and more than 200 crews are in preparation. Some leading MCN (Multi-Channel Network) agencies have released over 100 productions this year, according to one industry insider.

Micro-dramas boom at home and overseas as authorities rein in vulgar content

A film crew works on a micro-drama at Hengdian World Studios.

Micro-drama app ReelShort well-received in the overseas market

Fueled by the huge popularity of short dramas in China, ReelShort, a micro-drama app created by Chinese publishing company, COL Group, landed on the second spot on the overall free chart and the top spot on the free entertainment chart on the US App Store.

ReelShort has steadily climbed the ranks on the US iOS best-selling chart over the past two weeks, entering the Top 50 on Monday.

The app operates on a per-episode payment model, with the cost to watch the entire series exceeding US$10, higher than the per-episode cost of Netflix's unlimited monthly subscription.

Micro-dramas boom at home and overseas as authorities rein in vulgar content

Some micro-dramas that are available on ReelShort.

ReelShort is a product launched by Crazy Maple Studio, the overseas subsidiary of COL Group. It focuses on short live-action episodes, each lasting only 1 to 2 minutes, and was launched in August 2022.

Unlike the earlier awkward translated versions of domestic short dramas, the trending overseas short dramas feature authentic European and American accents and faces. However, their storylines bear a striking resemblance to Chinese online literature from years ago.

These short dramas are produced either by hiring foreign models or actors to shoot and produce in China; shooting materials overseas and doing post-production in China; or having an entirely overseas team, with costs increasing accordingly.

A scene from an episode of micro-drama "Double Life of my Billionaire Husband," created by ReelShort.

Promotion cost can be 10 times more than the production cost

Most of the popular short program dramas are monetized through paid views. The main cost of making these dramas comes from copyright acquisition or original creation, filming, and production and promotion.

The promotion usually refers to placing the dramas on social media platforms such as news app Toutiao, and short-video platforms Douyin and Kuaishou to attract audiences, who will be redirected to the mini-programs for paid viewing.

The cost of promotion is essentially equivalent to the promotion and advertising for movies. The production cost of a short drama is between 300,000 to 500,000 yuan. However, for a drama to be really popular on the platforms, promotion alone can cost tens of millions of yuan in just two to three days.

Take the example of "Unparalleled," whose production cost was less than 500,000 yuan. Just 48 hours after its online release, the total promotion cost for the drama reached a staggering 55 million yuan, more than a hundred times more.

Micro-dramas boom at home and overseas as authorities rein in vulgar content

The film crew shoots a scene for "Unparalleled."

In the first half of this year, nearly 300 micro-dramas were submitted for registration every month. Industry insiders predict that the domestic micro-drama market size may reach 25 billion yuan this year.

Authorities rein in vulgar content in micro-dramas

Along with these micro-dramas' huge popularity, vulgar content is also abundant. As early as November 2022, China's Radio and Television Administration started a special rectification campaign for the mini-program type of online micro-dramas.

As of February 28, 2023, more than 25,300 micro-dramas containing explicit content, low taste, and vulgar aesthetics, with a total of 1,365,004 episodes, were taken offline. In addition, 2,420 mini-programs containing violations were removed from the Internet.

The administration issued regulations on Wednesday to further manage vulgar content, along with a "blacklist" mechanism for online micro-dramas.

A more sophisticated monitoring mechanism will also be applied to censor vulgar content in micro-dramas.

A one-month intensive rectification campaign will also be launched to scrutinize the micro-dramas' content and their promotions. Recommendations and advertising algorithms will also be further optimized.

Special Reports