When Albee Zhang received an offer to produce cheesy short-form features designed for phones last spring, she was skeptical and therefore turned it down.
But the offers kept coming. Finally, Ms. Zhang, who has been a producer for 12 years, realized it could be a profitable new way to tell stories and said yes.
Since last summer, she has produced two short-form articles and is working on four more for various apps that create innovative content targeted at women.
Think: lifetime movie divided into TikTok videos. Think: soap opera, but for the short attention span of the Internet age.
The biggest player in this new genre is ReelShort, an app that offers melodramatic content in one-minute episodes filmed vertically and hopes to bring a successful formula established abroad to the United States by hooking millions of people with its short-form content.
ReelShort is owned by Crazy Maple Studio, a Northern California company that is backed by Beijing-based digital publisher COL Group.
ReelShort titles include “The Double Life of My Billionaire Husband,” “I Got Married Without You” and “Bound by Vendetta: Sleeping With the Enemy.” The shows are formulaic: the plots include romance and revenge, the characters are archetypal, and the dialogue is simple.
The extremely short genre gained popularity in the Asia-Pacific region during the pandemic, and Joey Jia, CEO of Crazy Maple Studio, took notice.
ReelShort aims to get people hooked as quickly as possible, and much of the action happens in the super short first episodes. “This is a pay-as-you-go model,” Jia said. “If people are confused by the story, they leave.”
The cost of creating these features is relatively low, $300,000 or less, according to Crazy Maple Studios. The crews are small and partly made up of recent film graduates in Los Angeles, according to the actors who worked on the productions.
Viewers can watch dozens of one-minute episodes on ReelShort for free across multiple platforms, including YouTube and TikTok. But at some point, they have to pay or watch ads to unlock later episodes.
Sometimes people pay as much as $10 or $20 to continue watching, said Ms. Zhang, the producer. “It's not crazy?”
In December, Mr. Jia said The Wall Street Journal that the company had already made $22 million in revenue.
In the United States, ReelShort is trying to succeed where short-form content company Quibi failed. Quibi launched in early 2020 and shut it down same yearin part because of what its founder Jeffrey Katzenberg called bad timing: The app offered five- to 10-minute news and entertainment videos for people on the go, just as people stopped going anywhere due to pandemic lockdowns.
And while Quibi focused on more intellectual content with A-list stars, ReelShort is doing the opposite: It's giving people juicy plot points, from werewolves to evil stepmothers, secret billionaire husbands, and more werewolves.
“We learned a lot from Quibi,” said Jia, an executive at Crazy Maple Studio. ReelShort isn't trying to appeal to everyone, like Quibi tried to do, he added.
“To create a successful mobile app, you need to know your core audience,” he said. And that audience is women who love soap operas. (ReelShort's audience is about 75 percent female, Jia said.)
Jia said he was not trying to compete with streamers like Netflix. If you can sit on your couch for a few hours, ReelShort is probably not the app you're opening. It's for those in-between moments: at a bus stop, in the bathroom.
“We're using a very different business model,” Jia said, “and sticking to a different schedule.”
ReelShort is not the first app owned or partially owned by a Chinese company to make its way into the United States. Tik Tok and the Shein and Temu shopping apps have been among the most downloaded in recent months in Apple's American app store.
But for TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, this has been problematic. Legislators from the United States, Europe and Canada have expressed fears that TikTok and its parent company can put people's sensitive personal information in the hands of the Chinese government, and have worked to restrict access to the popular app. ReelShort hasn't faced the same kind of pressure.
Last month, ReelShort was downloaded one million times and earned $5 million in revenue on Apple's App Store, according to data firm Sensor Tower, and was downloaded three million times on the Google Play Store, generating $3 million. of dollars in revenue there. Since November, ReelShort has ranked in the top 15 most popular entertainment apps on both app stores most days. (For a few days in November, ReelShort even surpassed TikTok as the most popular entertainment app in Apple's App Store.)
In total, more than seven million people downloaded ReelShort in the United States in 2023, on Apple and Android phones combined, according to data.ai. Worldwide, there were more than 24 million downloads last year. After the United States, India is ReelShort's next largest market, followed by the Philippines.
Kasey Esser, a Los Angeles-based actor who has worked on short shows for ReelShort and other apps, described the format as this generation's soap opera. He made a comparison to channels with made-for-TV content, like Hallmark.
“People know exactly the story they're going to get, but they'll still see it,” Esser, 34, said. “They'll still love it.”
For actress Samantha Drews, ReelShort was an opportunity to play different types of characters. “Now I can say I've been cast in 15 or 16 feature films in the last few years,” Drews, 25, said. “That's not something every actor can say.”
Camille James Harman, 57, had a supporting role in the 2018 film “Vice,” the Dick Cheney biopic starring Christian Bale that received several Oscar nominations. But she said she received many more responses for her starring role as her evil stepmother in the 2023 ReelShort production “The Double Life of My Billionaire Husband.”
Many other apps with names still unknown to many (Sereal+, ShortTV, DramaBox, FlexTV) have started producing similar features, hoping to capitalize on the ReelShort formula.
The number of new titles coming out on these platforms is greater than that of many traditional streaming services. And if it's up to Mr. Jia, that will continue in 2024: “The goal this year is to achieve another 100 titles,” he said.
As ReelShort publishes its content, the quality of the productions improves, said Leomax He, who directed three productions for the app last year. Some shots now employ a trick or privacy coordinator.
“Budgets have increased, cameras are better, equipment is getting bigger,” said He, 27.
Major studios have not yet ventured into the genre, but some actors and filmmakers speculated that American companies would soon begin creating their own short content.
“That's why I do so many of these,” said Mr. Esser, the actor. “It is a unique opportunity to be the first known boy of these in the United States”
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