Chinese specialty Boss-employee Romance Drama series has caused a frenzy of money-making overseas. ReelShort, a short drama app under the Chinese digital publishing company Chinese Online, has surpassed TikTok and reached the number one spot on the US iOS entertainment chart. On this app, the popular content of domestic short dramas and online novels are like “Family Feuds,” “Marriage Before Love,” and “The Dominant CEO Falls for Me”. Though they already become tiresome for Chinese viewers but now continuously attracting foreign audiences.
It is reported that this app charges for each episode, and the cost of watching the entire series is over $10, which is higher than the single-unit price of Netflix’s unlimited monthly subscription.
How to produce an overseas Boss-employee Romance drama
ReelShort is a product launched by Crazy Maple Studio, the overseas subsidiary of Chinese Online. It primarily promotes live-action short drama series with episodes lasting 1-2 minutes. This app was launched in August 2022. Unlike the earlier awkwardly dubbed domestic short dramas, the overseas Boss-employee Romance dramas have gained popularity this time around and feature authentic Western accents and appearances. It contains surprisingly similar storylines to those of popular online literature from a decade ago.
How are these “East-meets-West” short dramas produced?
According to Tu Weiliu, an investor who follows the short drama industry, there are three production methods for this type of drama: hiring foreign models or actors to shoot and produce in China; shooting overseas footage and doing post-production in China; and using a purely overseas team, with costs increasing in that order.
However, previously, the first two models have been proven to be largely unsuccessful.
“Even if domestic productions hire foreign actors, there are still subtle differences compared to filming overseas. If the domestic team is in charge, they often hire foreign models living in China, especially white models from countries such as Ukraine and Russia. They have distinctive appearances and English accents. Additionally, aesthetic styles differ between domestic and overseas productions. For example, when it comes to filters, domestic preferences tend to be more towards lighter tones, while overseas productions lean towards warmer tones. These factors can affect the data and performance of related series,” said Tu Weiliu.
Therefore, the most suitable production model for the current market situation is to outsource the project to a purely overseas team. It’s worth noting that the mentioned “purely overseas team” still consists mainly of overseas Chinese.
“Due to the need for communication with domestic companies, these teams usually consist of overseas Chinese as the main creative force, with some American team members mixed in,” said Harry Hou, founder of Ideal Sets, the first Chinese-owned practical movie studio in Los Angeles.
Chinese Online’s long-term dedication to the overseas market. Its entire short drama production chain is running smoothly. It is reported that before the release of ReelShort, Chinese Online had already established Chapters, an overseas-oriented e-book reading app, which also became an important source of scripts for subsequent ReelShort productions.
To undertake these types of short drama projects, not only do you need certain filming capabilities, but also the ability to mobilize various local resources, such as actors. According to Tu Weiliu, most of these production teams were previously involved in shooting promotional ads for Chinese products going abroad. At the same time, many overseas Chinese professionals in the film and television industry have become an important part of these teams.
According to Harry Hou’s observations, these teams usually consist of around 15-20 people. They prioritize diverse shooting locations because of the tight schedules and heavy workload of short dramas. “Since time is limited and frequent location changes are not feasible, studios like ours with diverse sets are their first choice.”
Does ReelShort take the lion share while overseas Chinese enjoy the benefits?”
In China, short dramas are considered as “sinking content (lower-tier content)” in all aspects. On the one hand, their content attributes result in a less appealing aesthetic taste compared to movies and web series. On the other hand, due to their fast-paced nature, Chinese short dramas are known for their ability to achieve great success with minimal investment.
According to multiple media reports, the production cost of domestic short dramas typically ranges between 100,000 and 300,000 yuan (approximately $15,700 to $47,000). High-quality short dramas have a production cost of around 500,000 yuan (approximately $78,500).
However, when the same content is shifted to overseas markets, the cost increases exponentially.
According to Tu Weiliu, the production cost of simple urban romance dramas with 70-90 episodes is around $130,000 to $150,000, while popular genres like werewolf dramas cost around $2,100 to $2,300 per episode. The first hit drama of ReelShort, “Fated To My Forbidden Alpha,” was a werewolf-themed series.
These hit dramas have brought substantial download numbers to ReelShort. According to Cailian Press, ReelShort had 2.25 million downloads in October, generating revenue of approximately $3.5 million. The success of this overseas venture has also led to significant growth for its parent company, Chinese Online, in the share market. Its stock price has risen over 100% this month.
Although the “purely overseas team” model is the most expensive production model among the three, Harry Hou believes that these subcontracting teams are not making as much money as one might imagine.
“Currently, there are about ten Chinese production companies in Los Angeles capable of undertaking such short dramas. The budgets for these dramas are not high, and a project with me typically takes a maximum of 3-4 days, with an additional 2 days for outdoor shooting. Most of the subcontracting teams are simply working for a living, and even the majority of the small-scale production companies on the client side are not making money,” he said. In his view, in order to make money, the subcontracting party must have the ability to shoot two or more projects simultaneously. “First, shooting multiple projects allows for shared resources and simultaneous planning by the pre-production team. Second, in a sufficiently large location, different scenes can be shot simultaneously by separate A and B teams. Third, both crew members and actors benefit from working on multiple projects, as they can negotiate better compensation. It also helps avoid situations where some actors raise their rates after completing one project.”
Boss-employee Romance short dramas: China’s barriers
Some people describe the overseas expansion of Boss-employee Romance short dramas as a “cultural export.” In fact, from a business perspective, it is a highly “China-specific” business with significant barriers.
While the content caters to a lower-tier audience, it demands a strong sense of pace and relies heavily on hit dramas. It is a product system that embodies the characteristics of China’s internet industry. It is the “go-viral logic” that every content creator who has engaged in WeChat public accounts, Douyin, Kuaishou, and other platforms is familiar with.
Investor Tu Weiliu likens it to a 100-episode continuous ad or a 100-episode movie trailer. “Each episode needs hooks to guide you to make purchases. It’s different from TV series and movies. They have time to tell a good story, but short dramas don’t.”
Chinese creators are evidently adept at adapting to and mastering the go-viral logic. In addition to that, understanding and valuing the lower-tier market are also important components of the barriers.
“The lower-tier market has many content needs that have not been met,” says Tu Weiliu. This was the industry’s overall assessment of the short drama market last year. In her opinion, not only in China but also in the lower-tier markets of Europe and the United States, the situation is similar. Pinduoduo’s cross-border e-commerce platform, Temu, has confirmed the demand for lower-tier consumer goods in Europe and the United States, while ReelShort represents the demand for content in the lower-tier consumer market.
This market is vast but often overlooked. Even though ReelShort has gained sudden popularity, there is still a huge market for overseas short dramas. “In China, short dramas are still plagued by issues such as being free, regulated, and reliant on traffic. So, from a broader market perspective, the overseas market definitely has more possibilities. The domestic short drama market is already worth over 20 billion yuan, which is substantial. However, when it comes to potential, the overseas market has yet to be fully explored, and it represents a validated user demand. Therefore, there is definitely a huge market.”
In this regard, overseas Chinese teams possess strong competitiveness. Harry Hou stated, “Local teams in the United States will certainly take notice, but it is not easy for them to get involved. Firstly, as I mentioned before, they need to have the ability to communicate with domestic clients. Secondly, they cannot achieve such low-cost production because the labor costs of Chinese teams are generally quite low.”