[Big read] Are ultra-short dramas in China just a fad?

Even as ultra-short dramas are all the rage in China right now, Lianhe Zaobao correspondent Daryl Lim takes a closer look at whether this currently popular trend will last, or fade away as quickly as it rose.
Ultra-short dramas are usually no longer than three minutes per episode, with about 100 episodes for each series. (Photo: Daryl Lim)
Ultra-short dramas are usually no longer than three minutes per episode, with about 100 episodes for each series. (Photo: Daryl Lim)

“The plots for ultra-short dramas are really cheesy; but the more I watch, the more I enjoy watching them. I would binge-watch them every day.”

40-year-old Lin Xiangchun (pseudonym) is a security guard working in Shenzhen. On his mobile phone, he has five or six ultra-short drama apps downloaded, and every day when work gets slow he passes the time by watching ultra-short dramas while at his post.

Raw and dramatic 

In an interview with Lianhe Zaobao, he described ultra-short dramas as the “best companion” for security guards, because it fits their requirements whether in terms of form or content.

Lin said, “In the past (when work was slow) we would read novels, watch TV series or movies. It’s only during this couple of years that we started watching ultra-short videos. The plot for ultra-short dramas is not so complicated, and you don’t have to pay too much attention, which means it’s easier to watch them while working.”

The ultra-short dramas that in the past few years have become popular in China are mainly published on platforms such as Douyin, Kuaishou and other short video apps. Such videos are no longer than three minutes per episode, with about 100 episodes for each series. Usually, the first ten or so episodes are free to view, with an option to pay to watch beyond that. 

Each episode of an ultra-short drama costs anywhere from a few cents to a few dollars, which means that if a user wants to watch an entire series, it could cost upwards of 100 RMB (US$13.89). 

Compared to regular television dramas, ultra-short dramas are much more raw, the acting is overly dramatic, the backdrops are boring and the filming and editing often leave much to be desired.

Lin Xiangchun displays the ultra-short dramas that he is watching on his phone. (Photo: Daryl Lim)
Lin Xiangchun (pseudonym) displays an ultra-short drama that he is watching on his phone. (Photo: Daryl Lim)

Because each episode of an ultra-short drama is so short, the plot does not contain too much scene-setting or a developing storyline as in a traditional narrative structure. Instead, it uses continuously unfolding plot twists to lead the viewers through pre-set climaxes. Each episode ends on a cliffhanger, enticing the audience to pay to watch the next episode.

Compared to regular television dramas, ultra-short dramas are much more raw, the acting is overly dramatic, the backdrops are boring and the filming and editing often leave much to be desired.

Ultra-short drama market hits 37.4 billion RMB

Yet the audience is not turned off; instead, support for such videos has ballooned so much that the industry has skyrocketed in the past few years. 

According to a report released by Chinese consulting firm iiMedia Research in November 2023, the online short drama industry in China was worth 37.4 billion RMB in 2023, growing 268% year-on-year. In 2019, the market did not even reach 1 billion RMB, which means that in just five years, the industry has grown to about 70% that of the century-old movie industry. 

Wu Changchang, an associate professor at East China Normal University’s School of Communication, analysed when interviewed that for short dramas to stand out amidst an array of well-produced entertainment products was a reflection of the audience’s focus on the content of videos, rather than its form. 

He said, “China has spent a lot of money in recent years to film many detailed productions of historical idol dramas, idol dramas and martial arts dramas. These dramas are often lengthy, from 50 to 80 episodes, but they never really caught on with the audience. Viewers have developed a resistance to dramas like these which are centred on form; some plotlines are dry, with inclusion of pointless content that make it hard to get satisfaction from watching these dramas.”

A common trope among all these dramas is how the main character is portrayed as coming from a humble background and being kept down, but in fact is wealthy and powerful.

A Humble Security Guard’s Beautiful CEO (《小保安的美女总裁》)
Ultra-short drama A Humble Security Guard’s Beautiful CEO (《小保安的美女总裁》). (Screenshot of video)

Many short dramas are adapted from web novels, and their themes generally revolve around love, a doting partner (with a saccharine sweet plot where the male lead showers his partner with limitless love), heroes (a character with uncommon courage and power), domineering CEOs, plot twists, revenge and so on. A common trope among all these dramas is how the main character is portrayed as coming from a humble background and being kept down, but in fact is wealthy and powerful.

Take for instance A Humble Security Guard’s Beautiful CEO (《小保安的美女总裁》), about the boss of an underground organisation who pretends to be a security guard so that he can protect a beautiful female CEO who once rescued him when he was a child. Within the first minute and a half, the male and female leads immediately engage in a passionate love scene, drawing viewers in with sex as a selling point.

Though such a plotline sounds crass, it does strike a chord among certain groups. 

Short drama consumers mainly middle-aged users from sinking markets

Ultra-short drama production company Yuanshang Muguang (原上慕光)'s founder and drama director Yan Peiliang said when interviewed that the main consumer group for short dramas are middle-aged users from sinking markets, including security guards, delivery workers, couriers, janitors, nannies and so on, who have a certain level of consumption power but fragmented time. 

Yan admitted that ultra-short dramas do not have much artistic value, and their function lies in providing catharsis to those from the sinking markets. As such, many main characters of ultra-short dramas play such roles, to make it easier for these groups to form an emotional connection and find mental comfort.

He cited a middle-aged security guard or a young delivery worker becoming a “hero” and seeking revenge, or an elderly woman finding their long-lost love in a sweet romance drama, as being emotions that people from sinking markets seek to release.

“In the post-pandemic era, the economic environment at large is not so ideal, so all the more people need such flicks to realise some form of virtual mental pleasure.” — Associate Professor Wu Changchang, School of Communication, East China Normal University

Food delivery men ride electric scooters along a street in Beijing, China on 16 January 2024. (Wang Zhao/AFP)
Food delivery men ride electric scooters along a street in Beijing, China, on 16 January 2024. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

Yan said, “Ultra-short dramas are able to stir such a big response mainly because these long-neglected emotions are finally given an appropriate avenue for release.”

Wu felt that to some degree, ultra-short dramas are “satisfying”, which makes them popular among the middle-lower classes in today’s society. He said, “In the post-pandemic era, the economic environment at large is not so ideal, so all the more people need such flicks to realise some form of virtual mental pleasure.”

Emotional satisfaction not sustainable

From a psychological point of view, the “satisfaction” from ultra-short dramas is more about meeting people’s desire for positive mental emotions.

Wei Zhizhong, the chief psychological counsellor at Guangzhou’s Yiweiduxin Psychology Counselling Clinic (一苇渡心心理咨询), explained in an interview that positive emotions such as joy, love, pride, gratitude, curiosity and so forth are instinctual human needs. Such emotions are produced through engaging in events of value and meaning, such as reading, watching movies, contributing to others and so forth. 

He said that as life gets faster, people find it hard to find time to settle down emotionally amidst a hurried society, to complete a task that brings them satisfaction and receive positive emotions through normal channels. The advent of ultra-short dramas has changed this, as their tight-knit plot and simple narrative style allow people to feel positive emotions in a short span of time.

"It’s like fireworks going off just for an instant.” — Wei Zhizhong, Chief Psychological Counsellor, Yiweiduxin Psychology Counselling Clinic

However, Wei gave a reminder that the positive emotions from watching ultra-short dramas is merely an illusion, and whatever short-lived pleasure remains only at the physiological level, and cannot go beyond into the mental level.

He said, “Watching ultra-short dramas is like scratching an itch, which would only stimulate you into secreting more dopamine. Once you have scratched that itch, the energy from your positive emotions will dissipate and will not form a positive cycle. It’s like fireworks going off just for an instant.”

A man uses his mobile phone along a street in Beijing, China on 27 February 2024. (Wang Zhao/AFP)
A man uses his mobile phone along a street in Beijing, China, on 27 February 2024. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

In Wei’s view, ultra-short dramas could become an avenue that people rely on to experience positive emotions, and they could easily get addicted to it, which could be harmful to society in the long run. He said, “People would become more shallow, and unwilling to think or chase after things with depth and meaning, while the spirit of the craftsman would weaken.”

As for ultra-short dramas being seen as “new-age spiritual opium”, Wu disagrees, as he feels that such criticisms often come from cultural elitists on their moral high horse, but besides criticising, they are unable to offer other cultural alternatives that can realise the emotional value of the masses. 

Wu feels that ultra-short dramas are a form of culture and a method of story-telling, and their legitimacy lies in their ability to cater to the current political, economic and societal situation, as well as the fragmented way in which most people watch shows to fill up their massive emotional void. 

He said, “All I can say is that the capitalists are really sharp, and are sensitive enough to seize this opportunity to develop ultra-short dramas into a new channel for profit growth.”

Attracting hot money with too many shoddy works

Ultra-short videos are said to be the “most profitable track” for China, attracting much influx of hot money. But industry insiders say that a lot of this is due to self-hyping within the industry; the chances that a short drama goes viral are exceedingly low, with most works being shoddily made.

To promote the development of ultra-short dramas, in 2021 short video platforms including Douyin and Kuaishou launched a “new releases project” (新番计划), to encourage multi-channel network organisations or individual creators to post ultra-short serialised dramas in exchange for traffic or cash incentives from the platform.

Driven by profit, several film companies have started to produce their own ultra-short dramas, and the market is now flourishing. Based on official statistics, nearly 2,800 ultra-short dramas were registered in 2022, an increase of 600% from just 398 in 2021.  

Last August, ultra-short drama series Unmatched (《无双》), which cost less than 500,000 RMB to produce, raked in over 100 million RMB just a week after it went online...

A person walks past movie posters at a cinema in Beijing, China, 21 February 2024. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)
A person walks past movie posters at a cinema in Beijing, China, on 21 February 2024. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

The booming ultra-short drama sector presents a ray of hope for the sluggish film industry. While an increasing number of film and television companies have revoked their business registrations between 2019 and 2021, the number of ultra-short drama companies registrations soared during the same period. In 2023 alone, 22,500 new ultra-short drama companies were established, a year-on-year increase of 20%.

A director at Beichen Pictures (北辰映画影视传媒) who goes by the stage name Ru Feng said in an interview that over the past few years, many production teams that shoot commercials, long dramas and web films have turned to the ultra-short drama market for a way out. 

Last August, ultra-short drama series Unmatched (《无双》), which cost less than 500,000 RMB to produce, raked in over 100 million RMB just a week after it went online, causing a stir in the film and television industry, giving outsiders a glimpse into the profit margins of ultra-short dramas.   

The saying “filmed in seven days, earned over 100 million RMB in eight, and struck it rich in ten” (一周拍完、八天收入过亿、十天暴富) even went viral online, and ultra-short drama production was even dubbed the “most lucrative business” in 2023.

Exploited by the market?

The get-rich-quick myth of ultra-short dramas has also attracted massive capital inflows. Ultra-short drama director Yan told Lianhe Zaobao in an interview that over the past few months, he has sometimes received up to two or three inquiries about ultra-short dramas in a day.  

He said that a lot of this capital is coming from the building and property sectors, with some either directly inquiring about making an investment or seeking collaboration. Many of them hope to find another way of making money in the ultra-short drama industry because the industry they are in is not doing well. 

He said, “In fact, they do not really understand this industry and have blindly jumped on the bandwagon. Some of them are destined to be exploited by the market.”

Less than 20% of them are profitable, and most end up not earning any money. — Ru Feng, Director, Beichen Pictures

哎呀!皇后娘娘来打工
Ultra-short drama Oh My! The Empress Dowager is Coming to Work (《哎呀!皇后娘娘来打工》). (Screenshot of video)

Among the ultra-short dramas that Yan directed, Oh My! The Empress Dowager is Coming to Work (《哎呀!皇后娘娘来打工》) and After His Flash Marriage, Mr Fu Can’t Hide His Waistcoat Anymore (《闪婚后,傅先生马甲藏不住了》), are among the two hits that raked in over 100 million RMB. But he admitted that there are not many productions like these on the market and a lot of investors come in with a gambler’s mentality, hoping that at least one of the dozens of dramas they have invested in will make money.  

Ru Feng also pointed out that although the production costs of ultra-short dramas are relatively lower, users seldom pay for on-demand viewing after the drama goes online. Less than 20% of them are profitable, and most end up not earning any money.  

He said, “Some of the figures that look very attractive from the outside have been exaggerated by unscrupulous production companies to attract investments. To put it bluntly, if you want people to invest in you, you have to market yourself, right?”

Red lines need to be more clearly drawn

China’s regulatory departments have recently strengthened the regulation and content audit of the ultra-short drama industry, taking down over 30,000 dramas in a year. Interviewed industry practitioners have differing opinions on this, with some agreeing that such supervision will better regulate the industry and others thinking that it should be left to the market to decide which dramas should stay or go, which means the survival of the fittest.

To attract more audience, some ultra-short dramas have resorted to adopting unconventional approaches and exploiting loopholes, producing dramas containing excessive displays of wealth, and sexual, vulgar or violent content.  

... nearly 31,700 ultra-short dramas were removed in a year, and 5,408 ultra-short drama mini apps were shut down for violating regulations. 

Over the past two years, China’s National Radio and Television Administration has been tightening its control over the ultra-short drama sector, including planning to accelerate the formulation of detailed rules for the creation, production and content review of ultra-short dramas; establishing a “blacklist” mechanism; and increasing the penalty and exposure of ultra-short dramas with content violations.

Statistics from we-media platform “Wang Shi Hu Lian” (网视互联) showed that as of late November 2023, nearly 31,700 ultra-short dramas were removed in a year, and 5,408 ultra-short drama mini apps were shut down for violating regulations. 

Ultra-short drama Bao Zheng Tianxia (《包争天下》). (Screenshot of video)
Ultra-short drama Bao Zheng Tianxia (《包争天下》). (Screenshot of video)

The Vanished Bride (《消失的新娘》), directed by Ru Feng, was one of the ultra-short dramas that was taken down last year. He told Lianhe Zaobao in an interview that this particular ultra-short drama was his most popular work, but it was ordered to be taken down three months after it aired for violating “public order and morals” due to its violent and sexual content. 

Currently in the post-production phase of a new ultra-short drama Bao Zheng Tianxia (《包争天下》), Ru Feng said that after that experience, he will be more careful with the content of his future productions. But he stressed that he agrees with the tightened controls, because only with proper control can the sector develop in an orderly manner.

He said, “As an industry practitioner, I definitely hope that this sector will continue to grow and flourish and not fade away after exploding for one or two years. The fact that the sector is being regulated means that there is a future for the industry. These measures can also prevent some opportunistic people from leaving the industry after reaping a windfall profit, which damages the reputation of the entire sector.” 

On the other hand, Yan thinks that instead of unilaterally strengthening the regulation and criticism of ultra-short dramas, authorities should be clearer in delineating red lines that cannot be crossed, so that industry practitioners are more aware of the scope of compliance, and then allow the market to decide who stays or goes.

He said, “A lot of new things undergo a period of unchecked growth, but return to normalcy at some point. I think that regulatory departments should be more tolerant and long-sighted instead of fussing over the details. Make any misstep and they could instead constrain the growth of the industry.” 

A sign of things to come?

The lucrativeness of ultra-short dramas has also attracted the attention of film and television professionals outside the mainland. Hong Kong’s king of comedy, filmmaker Stephen Chow, announced in February that he will be producing ultra-short drama Jin Zhu Yu Ye (《金猪玉叶》) in collaboration with Douyin. Prior to this, renowned Hong Kong film director Wong Jing had also led a team to Hengdian, Hangzhou in November 2023 to shoot the ultra-short drama Foolish Billionaire Prince (《亿万傻王子》). 

Wu of the East China Normal University has his reservations about the prediction that ultra-short films could be headed towards premiumisation.

Stephen Chow announced that he will be producing ultra-short drama Jin Zhu Yu Ye in collaboration with Douyin. (Internet)
Stephen Chow announced that he will be producing ultra-short drama Jin Zhu Yu Ye in collaboration with Douyin. (Internet)

Analysts have described the renowned Hong Kong film directors' entries into the market as delivering "crushing blows" to the smaller players and could be a sign of things to come in the ultra-short drama industry.

Titans and professionals from the experienced and technically advanced film and television industry are set to squeeze the profit-driven “substandard team” out of the market, and premium ultra-short dramas could replace homogenised, stereotypical and poorly produced content and become mainstream.   

Wu of the East China Normal University has his reservations about the prediction that ultra-short films could be headed towards premiumisation. He thinks that ultra-short dramas are characterised by their sloppy production values, and their fast-paced content can quickly satisfy audience expectations. If ultra-short dramas were to undergo premiumisation, the format might end up having an adverse effect on content and overshadowing it.  

Rather than fixating on the quality of ultra-short dramas, industry practitioners should instead deal with the homogenisation of ultra-short dramas in terms of content and presentation, to prevent marginal value from plummeting, he added.

Satisfying curiosity

Wu assessed that ultra-short dramas must achieve a breakthrough in the subject matter to develop well and find its way. It needs to discover society's "pleasure points" and more ways to make the audience “feel good”, satisfying their need for novelty.

People wait at a bus stop in Beijing, China on 16 March 2024. (Greg Baker/AFP)
People cross a road in Beijing, China, on 16 March 2024. (Greg Baker/AFP)

He said that in the process of China’s social transformation, various social problems have indeed brought about psychological trauma to the masses. Ultra-short dramas offer an emotional outlet for the people, although these emotions are constantly changing as society evolves.   

“Ultra-short dramas should act as a mirror and reflect society. Creators must sensitively perceive, capture and understand new emotional pain points, and discover new storylines revolving around these emotions so that ultra-short dramas can continue to survive and thrive,” he added.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “中国短剧三分钟一集 三分钟热度?”.

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