Film fans crowdfund new blockbuster hits

Updated: 2015-10-15 07:38

By Meng Jing and Ma Si(China Daily USA)

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Despite the success of Monkey King, investors need to pick film projects carefully for funding: experts

Chen Zunlang is just one year old but his name has already been emblazoned across the big screen as a producer of China's summer blockbuster movie.

Although he was never captured on film, Chen joined the list of 109 "kiddie producers" with an average age of less than four. All of them were from 89 Chinese families, who invested 7.8 million yuan ($1.23 million) to help market Monkey King: Hero is Back through crowdfunding.

 Film fans crowdfund new blockbuster hits

Two women pass by the poster of movie Monkey King: Hero Is Back in Sanlitun area of Beijing. Wei Xiaohao / China Daily

"The model of crowdfunding is born for filmmaking," Lu Wei, executive producer of the movie, said, adding that investors can reap the rewards within a year.

Based on the Chinese legend of the Monkey King, the film has become a smash hit since it was released in July, making a record-breaking 956 million yuan at the box office.

Naturally, this is good news for the 89 families that invested less than 90,000 yuan each. They are likely to make a whopping 200,000 yuan on their investment.

"With the (June) turmoil affecting China's stock market, everyone is looking for new avenues to invest," Lu said. "Apart from being regular financial products, movies are art. They can connect with investors in a deeper way."

The film industry has been quick to embrace crowdfunding, which allows small investors to finance business ventures through online platforms.

"I raised 5 million yuan within 5 hours after I spread the word that I was seeking investment online," Lu said. "We launched the crowdfunding plan (on WeChat, which is owned by Tencent Holdings Ltd) at the end of last year to raise marketing investment for the movie."

But while Monkey King: Hero is Back has been an incredible commercial success and an excellent advert for the power of crowdfunding, many film projects end in financial disaster after flopping at the box office.

"Last year, the total investment in China's filmmaking industry was more than 80 billion yuan while the total box office was about 30 billion yuan," Huang Guofeng, an analyst with consultancy firm Analysys International in Beijing, said. "The majority of investors end up with nothing. It is a very high-risk industry for investment."

Still, this has not stopped small investors hoping to strike it rich. Since crowdfunding is relatively new here, the business model is still evolving, particulary in the creative arts sector such as television and filmmaking.

Figures released by Yingcan Consultancy in Shanghai showed there are about nine online platforms in China offering crowdfunding opportunities for investors in movie and TV projects.

Film fans crowdfund new blockbuster hits

"Nearly half of the platforms have less than 10 projects and about 36 percent fail to raise the target they aim for," the consultancy reported.

Although there are no hard numbers for this section of the crowdfunding industry, the rise of Internet sites points to growing demand.

"We have noticed an increasing number of platforms that offer this kind of crowdfunding services for movies and TV programs, but we don't anticipate explosive growth in the near future. It will be a gradual expansion," Huang, of Analysys International, said .

Already, Chinese online giants Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and Baidu Inc have launched Internet platforms catering for crowdfunding opportunities in the film and TV sector.

Liu Chunning, head of Yulebao, Alibaba's site dedicated to support entertainment industry projects, revealed that the platform has raised 670 million yuan for 29 projects, including movies, TV series and shows since last year.

But most of the cash raised was used for marketing products such as posters, toys and other memorabilia. "About 60 percent of the Hollywood economy comes from the derivative products," Liu said.

"Through crowdfunding, movie makers and producers can reach their target audience and engage them as early as the start of production and provide more value-added services for their audience."

Online financing can also help market movies and TV programs in advance, such as Monkey King: Hero is Back, according to Chen Huan, chief executive officer of Hangzhou Xingxiangyi Culture Media Co Ltd.

"Through crowdfunding, producers can get the attention of a potential audience at the very beginning of the process," he said. "By analyzing and researching this target group of people, they can get important information in terms of casting and other decision-making procedures."

Chen's company has come up with a novel idea to push their latest film project, The Hunger Island, which is a science-fiction movie. The plan is to hold a nationwide casting competition to find the stars of tomorrow.

"Anyone who is interested in playing a leading role in the movie can sign up for the competition," he said. "The winner will get a cash reward of 200,000 yuan, professional acting training sessions and the chance to be famous.

"We are not short of investment for the film, but we are considering crowdfunding for a small proportion of the movie when we reach the next stage," Chen added. "It is good for marketing and can also reduce financial risks."

Li Linqun, chief executive officer of, a peer-to-peer, or P2P, lending platform, is not convinced. His Internet business has launched two crowdfunded TV drama projects, Nvrenhua Simeng and Huakai Rumeng, and considers it a waste of time to just use online finance for marketing.

"The projects on our platforms are equity-based crowdfunding," he said. "Investors can get real returns once the project makes a profit. I believe if you treat crowdfunding as a serious investment, a serious business, it can one day revolutionize the way how the film and television industries are financed."

But finding the right venture to invest in is crucial in a crowded marketplace. Many film projects end up disappearing without trace at the box office. Others just about break even after being released.

For every Monkey King: Hero is Back, there are countless movies consigned to the trash bin of history.

"The problem is you need to pick the projects carefully," Li said, adding that Dajiatou's first TV drama successfully raised 6 million yuan within a month because of its famous producer and array of stars. "We only choose films and TV programs with strong production teams ... we value tight budgets and early-stage investment."

For Lu Wei, the producer of Monkey King, there are bad movies, but there is no such thing as bad crowdfunding. "The most vital thing for the success of crowdfunded movies is whether or not they are good movies," he said.

"Good venture capital firms may have a success rate of 80 percent, while immature firms may see 80 percent of their projects fail. It is the same thing in crowdfunding."

After the spectacular summer hit Monkey King: Hero is Back, Lu is now planning to set up a crowdfunding platform dedicated to picking the most promising film projects for investors. "I hope 80 percent of the movies I choose to crowdfund can succeed," he said.

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(China Daily USA 10/15/2015 page15)