Chinese Streamer iQiyi’s Originals Take Aim at Hollywood’s Fan Base
The following article was created by The Hollywood Reporter’s marketing department in collaboration with its partners at iQiyi.
If one were to glance at the top box office films of the year in North America, a Marvel movie of a decidedly different stripe is leading the pack: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Toplined by Asian stars, the film has grossed north of $222.7 million stateside and hauled in a whopping $423.6 million worldwide, with another English-speaking territory, the U.K., garnering the biggest numbers overseas. These returns are rare not only for an Asian-cast movie with a Mandarin hero at its center, but especially robust during a protracted COVID pandemic that continues to eat into the theatrical business.
The crossover appeal of Asian programming stateside has been growing over the years, from Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) to Jon Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians (2018) to Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019), the first foreign-language film to win the Oscar for best picture.
Amid this upsurge stands iQiyi (pronounced “I-chi-e”), one of the largest worldwide streaming platforms, with 106.2 million subscribers. Owned by Chinese tech giant Baidu and based in Beijing and Shanghai, the OTT streaming company recently opened its international headquarters in Singapore. The move is meant to solidify iQiyi’s global footprint in Southeast Asia, with a growing presence in North America and the Middle East to deliver Asian narratives globally.
A look at iQiyi’s offerings reveals an almost dizzying array of pan-Asian content comprising both original productions and licensed programming, from Chinese historical dramas to Korean romance to multinational competition shows to Japanese anime and beyond. The popularity of these movies and TV series, as well as a rising interest in Chinese content, underscores the increasing prevalence of authentic stories from Asia, with vivid themes and colorful characters that are reverberating beyond borders.
iQiyi has made waves of late with edgier fare, like The Bad Kids and The Long Night, both nominated for major awards at the Busan International Film Festival, with The Bad Kids winning for Best Creative and Best New Actor (Zishan Rong) in the fest’s Asian Contents Awards categories. These unconventional narratives are being formed by more concentrated storytelling that appeals to broad-ranging viewers’ tastes. While more mainstream fare, like “Sweet On,” a curated selection of China’s popular romance titles, has garnered 59 million views in 10 weeks.
“The increasing allure of Chinese-language content is not a coincidental phenomenon,” says Kuek Yu-Chuang, iQiyi vp international business. “Global viewers are recognizing high-quality Chinese-language shows with meaningful stories that resonate locally and abroad.”
One world-renowned director who has been recruited into the iQiyi fold is Wang Xiao Shuai, who has been associated with China’s “Sixth Generation” of filmmakers. His Beijing Bicycle (2001) won the Silver Bear grand jury prize at the Berlin Film Festival, and his Drifters (2003) screened at Cannes as part of the festival’s Un Certain Regard sidebar. But his latest project, The Pavilion — a crime series produced by iQiyi Pictures — has satisfied his desire to take a deeper dive into genre forms, with storytelling that places his characters in the context of our times.
“I seek narratives that uncover the themes of various societal issues, history, family, et cetera — topics that are harder to fully explore in movies due to the shorter format,” says Wang. “Streaming has now made it possible for directors like me to delve more deeply into subjects within the frame of the suspense thrillers, which is one of the reasons why working with iQiyi was a natural decision.”
Adds the filmmaker: “iQiyi is also very brave, especially when it comes to constantly pushing their own boundaries of content creation through both leveraging and expanding their technical expertise. I believe that with this, the breadth and depth of Chinese-language content will continue to grow, and global audiences will have richer Asian content to enjoy.”
Other iQiyi’s longform productions gaining notice are Who Is the Murderer, another crime series that investigates a string of serial murders that took place over the course of 16 years in a southern Chinese city; Danger Zone, a Chinese-language prison drama set in Taiwan; The Ferryman: Legends of Nanyang, a 36-episode fantasy series set at a convenience store that connects to the underworld; and the upcoming Rainless Love in a Godless Land, described as “an apocalyptic romance drama based on the Indigenous Amis myths of Taiwan.”
All these series tout international casts from Southeast Asia, with world-class production values that rival the West.
Given these strengths, iQiyi is confident that Chinese content consumption is on the upswing, which is borne out by a recent Pollfish survey of 5,200 respondents conducted across 26 countries. In the study, 76 percent sampled Chinese entertainment as a new alternative within the past two years. Close to one-third of this group had delved into such fare over the past six months, showing that this growth is exponential. Participants in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam responded most positively when it came to the enjoyment of so-called “C-content.”
In terms of reach, iQiyi’s international offerings can be accessed in 191 territories including Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Taiwan, Dubai and the Americas via their app or their website, iQ.com.
For his part, Wang sees iQiyi’s embrace of a wider canvas of creative possibilities as redefining not just genre formulas, but allowing for greater expectations in Chinese production.
“I look forward to our audience embracing more genres of Chinese-language content,” he says, “as it will not only encourage more great stories in variety and diversity, but will also open a wider door for non-English content around the world.”