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China – Tech sector and Film industry moves

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“China is at an end”. This lament was heard to echo through the auditorium of London’s Royal Opera House earlier this month, part of the libretto of Puccini’s Turandot. In it, a ruthless, hereditary ruler presides over the nation with a culture of fear, and everyone in the country appears to have a role affiliated with or subject to the state. A far cry from today then.

In this article, we will look at movements in China’s tech sector and film industry.

Tech: Much news is pouring out of China currently as it looks to accelerate its digital maturity and capabilities, prompting varying degrees of concern, particularly as state actors look to influence the strategy and restrict the processes of individual corporate entities. Apple’s concession of building data centres in China is disappointing. No less ominous is China’s continued investment in artificial intelligence. The opportunity is a potential wellspring of innovation, but one likely to be geared toward autocratic ends (e.g. the identification, if not ‘prediction’, of those not towing the party line). Having relaxed the market only in recent years to allow videogames consoles, China’s regulators are now terrified of the impact of such things on children. Tencent saw >$15bn in market value lost in one day earlier this month when they restricted playing hours on their number one game to two hours a day for 12-18 year olds. This move was anticipatory, after much government and media speculation over the game’s addictive nature. As the Financial Times reports,

“Two weeks ago a 17-year-old boy in Guangzhou suffered a stroke after playing nonstop for 40 hours. Last week state media reported a 13-year-old boy in Hangzhou had broken his legs jumping from a third-floor window after his parents stopped him from playing.”

Surely if Tencent is under pressure, no one is safe? So it seems; Weibo became the victim of over-eager government chin-wagging recently, with shares dropping 6% on the revelation that it was banned from showing user videos without the appropriate licence. As with many other social platforms, video is a key revenue medium. According to the FT, 20% of Weibo’s $170m advertising revenue in the first quarter was from video; Chinese social users dedicate 25% of their time on mobile devices to watching video.

Film: 2017 seems to be a year of reckoning for the motion picture industry in China. The market has spent over a decade providing increasingly huge amounts of revenue to Hollywood studios, gradually relaxing its annual quota of releases further as allegations over nefarious dealings had been largely ignored. At one time, China’s box office was predicted to become the biggest in the world at some point this year. That talk has now ceased. PwC recently made a more sober prediction of 2021. The last twelve months have seen:

  • A dramatic slowdown in overall box office in China
  • Domestic product reaching new lows of box office takings
  • Increased visibility of what appears to be widespread fraud at the box office, allocating ticket sales from one film to another
  • A higher share of revenue for Hollywood fare

These four things are, unsurprisingly, connected! There have long been anecdotal stories about how local exhibitors will give cinema-goers the “wrong” ticket for a movie – especially when it is a foreign film – giving the audience receipts for a local domestic film instead, in order to inflate its box office performance. Also known as fraud. There are non-illegal reasons for relatively poor performance too. Local product still tends to be technically and narratively inferior to Hollywood films, as well as often being extremely derivative. Of the top 10 selling films in the second quarter, only two were made at home; in previous years the balance between revenues from domestic and foreign films has been closer to 50-50. The addition of 9,000 screens has not budged the needle. As a result, Variety points out, “Many Chinese movies have opened strongly, but then faded fast”. The Financial Times writes that “China may still see its first drop in ticket sales in more than 20 years in 2017”. Regulators have added salt to the wound (aka opened up the market), scrapping the annual ‘domestic film industry protection month’, where only Chinese films are allowed to be shown in theatres. Hollywood studios should not celebrate their relative success too much; its tactic of vast amounts of Chinese product placement was commercially successful in the fourth iteration of Transformers; less so with the fifth (and hopefully last) iteration.

M&A in the industry has been affected by a wider clampdown on capital outflow, which has put the kibosh on large deals by companies like Wanda, which recently sought to purchase Dick Clark productions. Political tension means associations with Wanda and AMC Entertainment are under scrutiny, in an effort to de-risk opaque dealings, and explains the absence of any South Korean films at the Shanghai International Film Festival earlier this summer. Signs continue of US/China co-productions (such as Marvel’s planned creation of a Chinese superhero). But further international cooperation could be hit by the factors mentioned above, especially when mixed with economic realities. You may have noticed Alibaba Pictures gracing the opening credits of the last Mission: Impossible film. The company’s $141m loss last year may give pause before further such outings.

All this is happening while Xi Jinping is in the midst of important domestic machinations to reorder his Politburo, on the macro level, while also, at the industry-level, seeking to re-negotiate the existing film important agreement. The MPAA has brought in PwC (the dudes that screwed up the Oscars’ Best Picture result) to audit Chinese box office takings for the first time, in order to presumably provide increased leverage in negotiations. Currently, according to Variety, studios get 25% of gross ticket receipts, “half of what theaters usually cough up in other major territories”. Stanley Rosen, a political science professor at USC who specializes in China, is downbeat regarding the potential scope of the audit, “It would be interesting to see what is allowed and what is off limits. My guess is the most egregious forms of box office manipulation will not be investigated.”

 

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Answering the call to greater engagement (and revenues): WhatsApp, WeChat and chatbots

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’39 Steps’ to more revenues

Not that we like to dwell on “I told you so” situations, but Zeitgeist has been rambling on about the missed opportunities of WhatsApp – relative to its Asian counterparts like Line and WeChat – for at least a year now. The platform, owned by Facebook, has had a real opportunity to borrow a page from its analogous peers in the East, particularly with regard to B2C opportunities, for some time now. It was hugely gratifying therefore when last week it was announced that WhatsApp will allow businesses to send messages to users of the platform.

Whatappening in business

The Financial Times suggests example messages along the lines of “fraud alerts from banks and updates from airlines on delayed flights”. It’s about random companies sending you somewhat-tailored messages. Snore. The potential here is so much more monumental. Think of the potential for a fast-food service, or a news publisher (we said think; we’re not going to do all your work for you). What the platform won’t do is start serving banner ads in the app. Firstly because Facebook surely acknowledge what a horrendous impact this would have on UX; secondly because WhatsApp strongly pushes their e2e encryption feature.

Interestingly, the way this will work is that Facebook will get access to your phone number (if you haven’t succumbed to their pleas asking for it already). It will formalise the link between your old-school Facebook account and your not so-old-school-but-not-quite-Snapchat-either WhatsApp account, as suggested by New York magazine. Apparently Facebook will also be able to offer you friend suggestions. Whew, yeah because that’s a tool I really am concerned about and wish was more useful and efficient.

The potential we referred to earlier (we’re still not going to do all your work for you) is around chatbots. Chatbots and this new era for WhatsApp surely make sense. And people are clamouring for them. According to eMarketer’s data from May, nearly 50% of UK internet users say they would use a chatbot to obtain quick emergency answers if the option were available. About 4 in 10 also said they would use a chatbot to forward a question or request to an appropriate human.

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Whatsappening in the rest of the world

But to say WhatsApp has been missing the boat in terms of additional data insight or revenue streams outside Western markets is a touch unfair. As the FT detailed at the beginning of the month,

“Whether you are in the market for a nicely fattened goat from the United Arab Emirates or freshly caught fish in the port of Mangalore in India, you can place your order on WhatsApp”

Indeed, it seems though outside Western markets the app is used in an entirely different way. Even within Europe there are differences. In Spain it is extremely common to make and receive calls over WhatsApp. In the UK, many a caller has been befuddled by my attempts to reach them via the platform. The likes of WhatsApp though are particularly crucial in emerging markets like India, where many citizens have never registered for and may never now register for an email address. If this sounds ludicrous, it means you’re old. It’s why the aforementioned pleas from Facebook for your phone number, why Twitter occasionally does screen takeovers when you open the app asking for it, and why in a recent project engagement I managed, we recommended a major international film and TV broadcasting company that they do the same for their own login feature. The data below for emerging markets shows the astounding reach WhatsApp has managed (and the foresight in its purchase by Zuck):

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While Benedict Evans of Andreessen Horowitz says the platform has struggled to acquire new customers for businesses versus Facebook and Instagram, it undoubtedly has been successful in strengthening relationships with existing customers. This is fine in Zeitgeist’s eyes. Retention is cheaper than acquisition; if you create a good CX you don’t need to worry about getting new customers. The emphasis should be on engendering loyalty, not on scrambling to reach the newbies all the time.

WeChat’s inimitable template

At the start of the piece we mentioned China’s WeChat (or Weixin) messaging platform, of which Zeitgeist is a big fan. Others are too, which is why by some estimates it’s worth $80bn. One of the advantages inherent in both WeChat and WhatsApp is that users have naturally gravitated to these applications without the need for them to be incentivised or “walled garden”ed into such interaction. And such engagement doesn’t start before you’re old enough to even lift a mobile device, again, you’re too old. As The Economist detailed in a piece earlier this month,

“[Four year-old Yu Hui] uses a Mon Mon, an internet-connected device that links through the cloud to the WeChat app. The cuddly critter’s rotund belly disguises a microphone, which Yu Hui uses to send rambling updates and songs to her parents; it lights up when she gets an incoming message back”

For the child’s mother, WeChat has replaced such antiquated features as a voice plan, as well as email. The application also integrates features for business use that mimic that of Slack in the US. According to the article she even uses QR codes to scan business associate profiles more than she uses business cards. QR came a little late to Western markets and despite the intentions of agencies like Ogilvy in the 2010s, has failed to take off. Its owner, Tencent, has used its powerful brand and powerful authentication convince millions to part with their credit card details. The likes of Snapchat and WhatsApp have yet to make the convincing case for this. It is this crucial element that allows the father of said family to use the app for eCommerce, contactless payments in store, utility bills, splitting the bill at restaurants, paying for taxis, paying for food delivery, theatre tickets and hospital appointments, all within the WeChat ecosystem. It is then no surprise that a typical user interacts with the app at least ten times a day.

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Although we mentioned no incentivisation has been necessary, a state-backed campaign last Chinese New Year saw a competition for millions of dollars in return for people vigorously shaking their handset during a TV show, the way to both have the app interact with a TV programme as well as the way for users to make new friends who are also users, according to The Economist, which reported that “punters did so 11 billion times during the show, with 810m shakes a minute recorded at one point”.

McKinsey reported last year that 15% of WeChat users have made a purchase through the platform; data from the same consulting firm this year shows that figure has now more than doubled, to 31%. Can such figures be replicated in the West? Time and culture have led to WeChat’s pervasive effectiveness and dominance. Just like QR codes have never taken off in the West, so SMS and email never took off in China, so there was never a competing platform to ween people off when it came to messaging. What some people had used was Tencent’s messaging platform QQ, the successor of which became WeChat. QQ contacts were easily transferable. Gift-giving idiosyncracies, leveraged and promoted with a big marketing push, as well as online games (from where over half of revenues derive) are both still nascent behaviours and territories for consumers and platforms, respectively, in the West.

Next steps

It’s fascinating of course that none of these apps for a moment consider charging for voice calls; that would anachronistic and simply bizarre. With WhatsApp’s latest announcement, it takes a step in the right direction, opening up additional revenue streams while also trying to develop a more cohesive ecosystem for its user base. Whether users in Western markets will be comfortable with a consolidation of features on one platform – owned by a company that is viewed by some as already having consolidated too much data on them – is an open question, and surely the first hurdle to begin tackling.

UPDATE (30/9/16): While messaging platforms are great, there are other opportunities to consider too. Shazam, the app that was a godsend for Zeitgeist while at university wanting to know what song was playing in the club, has been around for a while. It’s impressive then that is has managed to double its user base in the past two years, continuing its expansion into TV content. Product placement in the US has helped, and Coca-Cola worked with them on a big campaign last year. The company is breaking even for the time since 2011. An interesting platform to consider, for the right partner…

 

Trends, threats and opportunities in the film industry

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In the 1950s… 80 per cent of the audience was lost. Studios tried many ways to win back this audience, including new technologies such as Cinerama, but none of these worked. What did work was to view the entire business as basically an intellectual properties business where they optimised on as many platforms as possible. That’s the business today.”

– Ed Epstein

Strategy is something that this blog has in the past accused the film industry of lacking, particularly when it comes to issues of development (over-leveraging risk with expensive tentpoles) and distribution (a lack of progressive thinking when it comes to day-and-date openings across platforms). This piece takes a look at how, in some areas, there are kernels of hope for the industry, as well as some specific areas that are ripe for improvement.

Given our initial contention, It was refreshing to discover this gem of an illustration (see top image) from none other than Walt Disney himself that was recently recovered from the archives, according to Harvard Business Review, showing “a central film asset that in very precise ways infuses value into and is in turn supported by an array of related entertainment assets”; all that’s missing is the strategic goal. Such forethought, of complementary assets combining to drive value, is arguably a symptom of the much-ballyhoed “synergy” and convergence the industry has undergone over the past ten to fifteen years; here was Walt writing about in 1957. The HBR article contends that it is not just synergy that is important, but in identifying those areas where you possess “unique synergy”. Disney’s current state, with Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm as content production houses, is an impressive pursuit of such a unique synergy, helped in no small part by having the impressive Bob Iger at the helm. The recent announcement of a Han Solo origin story, with the pair behind 21 Jump Street attached to direct, would have been to music to many a filmgoer’s ears. Unfortunately, the danger of undue risk from arranging a surfeit of tentpole releases remains, and is unlikely to be challenged while films such as Tomorrowland tank and Jurassic World soar. A brilliant piece on the evolution of the summer blockbuster, featured in the Financial Times recently, can be found here.

The film industry in China is a subject we last wrote about around a year ago. It’s a booming scene out there (last year China added as many screens as there are in all of France), which despite a quota on foreign film has proved enormously profitable to Hollywood. And while some films have had to seek opaque deals that ensure the inclusion of Chinese settings and talent in order to get the thumbs up for exhibition in China – e.g. the latest iteration of Transformers – others pay scant attention to such cultural pandering, and meet with similar success. In June, the Financial Times wrote that Furious 7 had no Chinese elements, but still managed to break “all-time box-office records since its release in China in April, taking in almost $390m”. Importantly, the figure beat the US’s taking of $348m. China is due to be the largest movie market in the world in less than three years. As we have written before, part of this is due to the cultural interest in moviegoing; people will see pretty much anything in China while the experience is still new and tantalising. While good for revenues, it does imply that content produced will be increasingly skewed – at least for a while – to lowest common denominator viewing that titillates rather than stimulates. The sheer volume of takings for such fare is ominous; of the fastest films ever to reach $1bn globally at the box office, three are from this year. China has played no small role in this development.

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However, all is not as rosy as it could be. Traditional players in the industry are wary of new entrants. Domestic companies Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, YoukuTudou and Leshi have either partnered with studios for exclusive distribution deals over online platforms – irking the exhibitors – or simply investing in developing their own studios and content production. The FT writes, “[c]ollectively, these internet firms co-produced or directly invested in 15 films in 2014, which earned more than Rmb6bn ($965m) at the box office last year – a fifth of total receipts… Industry participants worry that these internet giants may soon seek to cut them out of the equation altogether“.

How to respond to such disruption? Well, they might for a start take a step up in their customer engagement management, from developing more complex segmentation to encouraging retention, whether it be to a particular studio or a particular cinema. At a simple level, this might mean things like not revealing the twists of films in the trailer. At a more complex level, it might involve working with social networks, perhaps even some of the very ones otherwise considered as competitors, listed above, to gain Big Data insights that can better inform messaging, targeting and identification of high-value users. Earlier this year, Deloitte worked with Facebook to produce a piece of thought leadership that looked to do just that, helping telcos with what was defined as “moment-based”, dynamic segmentation, with initial work and hypothesis from Deloitte and their Mobile Consumer Survey correlated against Facebook’s data trove. Using different messages over innovative channels, for example on WeChat, would also likely prove fruitful. Luxury brands, long the laggards in digital strategy, have recently been making headway in customer engagement via such methods. Looking further ahead, they might also consider how their “unique synergy” will be positioned for future consumer trends. The Internet of Things is set to fundamentally change the way we go about our lives, including the relationship businesses have with their customers. How will it impact movie-going and people’s relationship with the cinema? For all the global talk on the impact of such devices, the film industry has yet to develop any coherent thinking on it. One bright area is the subject we mentioned at the beginning of our article; collapsing release windows. Paramount announced earlier this month they have reached an agreement with two prominent US exhibitor chains, Cineplex and AMC, to “reduce the period of time that movies play exclusively in theaters” to just 17 days for two specific films, according to The Wrap. It’s not clear what financial (or otherwise) incentives the theater chains received for such a deal.

So while the threat of disruption is ever-present – as it is for so many industries around the world right now – there are ample opportunities for studios and exhibitors to up their game, through better targeting, better communication, better distribution deals, and, just maybe, better product.

Hollywood & China – “To fight monsters we created monsters”

August 6, 2014 1 comment

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“The film market in China is like an experimental supermarket – with more and more racks but only one product… The viewers don’t care what they see as long as it’s a film. They’ll watch whatever is put in front of them.”

– Zhang Xiaobei, CCTV

LA is “a favourite place for Chinese businessmen to do business”, according to the objective opinion of China’s general counsel to Los Angeles. And that was back in 2011, before China extended its annual quota of foreign films allowed to be exhibited on the mainland. We’ve written before about the relationship between Hollywood and China, which in the two years since we wrote that piece has only deepened. It’s little wonder; EY has predicted China will be the largest film market in the world by 2020. Revenue is being squeezed in the film industry as millennials hang out on their smartphones and games consoles. When they do pay for movies, it’s more likely to be streamed rather than owned. Worse, that stream may be hosted by someone like Netflix, whose burgeoning clout makes negotiations for license fees increasingly difficult. So China provides a timely cash cow; an antidote to Western media fragmentation and fatigue. But at what cost?

China’s economic rise to superpower status has logically meant a rise in its viability as a place to invest in. From infrastructure, where cinemas screens have been springing up at the unbelievable rate of seven a day (as of May this year), to co-productions between Hollywood and homegrown Chinese outfits. These collaborations have resulted in overt references to China in storylines, such as that seen in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The Karate Kid and the Kung Fu Panda franchise, or the additional scenes filmed for Iron Man 3. This also includes the more recent Transformers: Age of Extinction, which saw not only a large part of the film take place in Hong Kong, but also included local talent and featured a mind-boggling amount of inappropriate product placement from Sino brands. The few production companies in China are also expanding, looking beyond more traditional propaganda fare, as well as to foreign markets, as is the case with China Film Group.

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But the film industry in China is not quite as rosy as it appears. Interestingly, there have been few efforts at US talent getting involved in Chinese productions. This may be partly due to the mess that was The Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale, which was reportedly little more than a propaganda piece. And from a content point of view, caution has been the watchword for studios; The producers of World War Z removed a discussion over whether the zombie apocalypse started in China; Chinese villains were edited out of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Men in Black 3. Is that really necessary? And while scripts are edited to appear more appealing to China, so are balance sheets. For while Transformers 4 is now China’s highest-grossing movie of all time, according to The Hollywood Reporter, what THR don’t mention was the way the gross is measured. For, says Julie Makinen, a China correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, box office revenue is arbitrarily inflated. She elaborates,

“I think everyone agrees there’s some fudging that goes on… It’s fairly common to go into a theater, say, ‘Hi, I’d like to buy a ticket for Transformers,’ and they say, ‘Great,’ and they print out your ticket for a local romantic comedy. So I’m pretty sure the 20 bucks I just handed over is being counted in someone else’s basket. Things like that happen; a lot of statistics in China are suspect.”

Moviegoers aren’t being particularly discriminating yet because the act of going to the cinema as an event or experience is still a relatively new phenomenon for many. Product placement, which we referred to earlier, while an opportunity for some synergy between film and brands, risks being too commercial and overt if done without context. A recent article in the Financial Times said such promotions in Transformers 4 quickly “start flying faster than bullets from an Autobot’s wrist-mounted Gatling gun”. Apart from bringing viewers out of the fictional narrative into reality, creating a disappointing experience, inappropriate product placement can also cause ire between businesses. (We’ve written several times over the years about product placement, here.) Such an occurrence took place at the end of July when a tourism group in China sued Paramount Pictures for failing to show a logo of the park that the company had paid to be prominently displayed in the movie. The implementation of co-productions between the two countries evidently needs work too. Scenes added exclusively for a Chinese version of Iron Man 3 added little except some questionable product placement as well as the dubious plotline of Tony Stark heading to China, of all places, for medical convalescence. Lastly, the current quota of films to be exhibited in China means that many good-quality US films fail to be seen in the country. Much like bans on US games consoles and the Android app store, Google Play, the result of this has been an explosion of home-grown imitators. In this case, films in China are made that precisely mimic the formula and set-up of popular American franchises like The Hangover, which was never seen by Chinese audiences, thus the extent of emulation isn’t evident. Assuming that eventually the quota will be entirely relaxed, this type of tactic can only ever be a short-term measure.

One of the greatest opportunities the film industry in China has is in part due to one of its greatest weaknesses. Because of historically protracted release windows, and a narrow selection of films making it to cinemas, piracy has been rampant. Indeed, infringement has been widespread enough that the industry has had seemingly no choice but to innovate. We reported back in April how China has relaxed its embargo on foreign games consoles, and, more to the point, how Tencent, in partnership with Warner Bros., were making the latest 300 film available to rent, while the film was still in cinemas in the US. Such forward-thinking is welcome. As well as offsetting any losses from piracy, it also hopefully points the way to a more open business environment in China, at least for TMT companies. Such innovative thinking will need to be extended, however, to the structure of China’s film industry itself, which is reportedly a vertically integrated engine driven almost entirely at the whim of the state.

Just as China’s tastes have held increasing sway over the production of art and wine in recent years, so with film. The middling global box office performance of Pacific Rim found salvation in Asia, and that was all the justification needed for a franchise to be developed. There is certainly much to be gained from investment and co-productions in China’s films industry, especially while it is still relatively nascent, not least of which are the financial returns. How such relationships impact the content itself is another matter. Hopefully some of the approaches China is taking with regard to multi-platform releases might even trickle over to Western markets. Studios should also be wary about putting all their eggs in one basket; CNBC reports that growth in ticket sales for Hollywood films in mainland China hit a five-year low in 2013. Only three US movies made the top ten highest-grossing films in China last year, down from seven in 2012. One reason for the slowdown is a lack of variety. And yet don’t expect the blockbuster formula to change anytime soon; as much as it was born in the USA, it is also what audiences in the worldwide market love to gobble up. (Michael Bay’s films – expertly dissected in the above video – prove that point no end, and it has been particularly driven home recently as Bay himself as well as sometime employee Megan Fox have expressed nonchalance about any negative press from critics, knowing their products make millions despite nasty reviews. Specifically, actress Fox told naysayers to “F*ck off”.) There is a certain amount of momentum behind the two industries’ relationship with one another, but recent productions have shown that future projects should perhaps be treated with a little more caution, particularly as Chinese audiences tastes mature. Last month the film historian Neal Gabler was quoted in the Financial Times, in a point that usefully sums up this piece,

“The overseas market has changed the DNA of American movies… The bigger-faster-louder aesthetic is very deeply embedded in the American psyche. No one else can do it. It’s one of the reason they export so well. It’s so much a part of who we are. But we have been victims of our own success. It’s a Catch-22. The things that make our movies so popular overseas are now larger than the American market can support by itself.”

UPDATE (30/8/14): The production side of the industry continues to evolve, as China’s largest video website Youku Tudou demonstrated on Friday when it promised to produce 8 films for cinema release and 9 to premiere on the internet. Chairman and Chief Exec Victor Koo pointed out to the Financial Times that there was a gap in the market left by Hollywood, “The US film industry is highly developed. It tends to be either blockbusters or franchise films. But in China you’re talking about small to mid to large budgets…”. The logistics of creating a film for online release – more than likely to be consumed on a smartphone – must consider important limiting factors such as, according to Heyi Film chief exec Allen Zhu, smartphones in China running films get “very hot after 20 mins”. Youku Tudou’s plans may seem ambitious – particularly given it reported a $26m loss for the second quarter – but when 18 screens are erected in China every day (last year more cinema screens were added in China than the total in France), it seems a risk some are willing to take.