Web dramas win millions despite losses, censors fret

By An Nguyen, Ha Thu   August 28, 2019 | 07:35 pm GMT+7
Web dramas win millions despite losses, censors fret
Comedian Thu Trang in "Chi Muoi Ba" (The 13th Sister), a movie that has been adapted from the web series "Thap Tam Muoi". Photo acquired by Ngoisao.

Financial losses are not stopping increasing numbers of Vietnamese artists from investing in YouTube films. The exposure can pay off in the future. 

As a channel to attract viewers, YouTube has no match, budding Vietnamese artists and filmmakers have discovered.

And they are amassing much greater viewership than traditional screening platforms like TV and cinemas. 

"Avengers: Endgame", for instance, attracted only three million views after being screened in Vietnamese theatres, while just one episode of the web drama titled "Thap Tam Muoi" (The 13th Sister) starring comedian Thu Trang has attracted over 40 million views on YouTube.  

The trailer of "Chi Muoi Ba".

Web dramas are blossoming, attracting both new and well-known artists, but this phenomenon is a new challenge for the nation’s culture managers. 

Nguyen Thanh Chung, Vice Director of the Department of Radio, Television and Electronic Information under the Ministry of Information and Communications, said that in 2018, Vietnamese filmmakers produced about 400 dramas for TV, which was just a fraction of the number made for the world wide web. 

Web dramas began mushrooming since around 2015 as pioneer amateur production teams like Thich An Pho, BB&BG, and FAPTv managed to attract young viewers with comedies resembling small plays made for the stage. 

Thich An Pho and BB&BG went on to attract a million subscribers each, received the YouTube Gold Play Button, and became the first monetized channels in this field in Vietnam. 

Amateur actors such as Pho Dac Biet and BB Tran garnered considerable fame from this platform and were offered roles in movies. 

Over the past three years, many professional actors and artists have also resorted to making web dramas. Producers say a big advantage of online platforms like YouTube is their easy distribution: anyone can publish and distribute a video. 

Artist Nam Thu who is investing in this field said that web dramas were also easy to watch. With just a few clicks, viewers could watch them anytime as long as they had a suitable device. 

For young actors, online platforms are a good alternative to TV, which has tight schedules and requires many phases of censorship. 

Many have thus chosen YouTube as a shortcut to get to the audience. Tuan Tran, an actor who attracted a great deal attention with the web series "21 Ngay Yeu Em" (21 Days of Loving You), said he had invested in web dramas in order to be able to develop his own content. 

According to Duong Binh Nguyen, who has produced the web series "Bao Lo" (Lotto), young people are attracted by web dramas’ open and non-traditional quality in terms of genre and subject matter. 

"Web dramas sometimes catch attention thanks to handling sensitive subjects like crime and sex with direct and bold representation," he said. "They can be said to trespass on the ‘taboo’ zones that films made for TV and cinemas can’t or avoid addressing."

Upping the game 

The rising popularity of web dramas has seen producers starting to up their game by developing new, better-quality dramas. 

Small and short plays with insubstantial storylines are giving way to episodes of 20 to 50 minutes, which are as long as TV episodes. The themes are also expanding to include martial arts, period drama, horror and gangsters.  

Huynh Lap, who made the web series "Tam Cam: Chuyen Huynh Lap Ke" (Cinderella: Huynh Lap’s Story), has also realized the need to improve himself to stay competitive on the Internet. 

"At first, I only made parody videos shot in one or two days," he said. "But now, I’m developing longer projects which may require shooting in the provinces." 

Web dramas win millions despite losses, censors fret

Huynh Lap (black dress) with the series "Tam Cam: Chuyen Huynh Lap Ke". Photo acquired by VnExpress.

Other actors have turned to making web dramas as a way to gain experience in various phases of filmmaking, like producing, directing, screenwriting and acting, before trying traditional platforms.

They said that in many developed countries, famous directors also used to make films for the Internet before they made movies for theatres.

Most artists suffer losses when they make web dramas. Their direct revenue, which comes from YouTube and through ads, is often not enough to offset costs. 

Duong Binh Nguyen said it costs about VND200-300 million ($8,700-13,000) to produce one episode for the web. 

Huynh Lap paid VND3 billion ($130,435) to make "Ai Chet Gio Tay" (Raise Your Hand If You Are Dead).

Despites losses, many web producers say they still pursue web dramas to attract audiences and pave the way for future projects and can make money elsewhere. 

They said they have been able to make money by taking part in games shows and events and acting in movies and commercials.

 "I consider web dramas a platform to introduce myself rather than a source of revenue," Huynh Lap said. 

Web producers admit that the biggest difficulty is investment. Nam Thu has received offers of sponsorships that she had to refuse because the investors wanted to control the content by adding commercials, and that can put audiences off. 

Some filmmakers have turned their web dramas into movies and hit paydirt.

Culture managers bemused

Culture managers are not entirely comfortable with the web dramas’ foray into the taboo zones mentioned by Duong Binh Nguyen. 

Audiences of any age can easily click on YouTube to watch "Thap Tu Co Nuong" (The 14th Young Lady), which has attracted tens of millions of views. 

Web dramas win millions despite losses, censors fret - 1

A sexual harassment scene in "Thap Tu Co Nuong". Photo by Nam Thu Official.

Many web dramas also revolve around gangsters, using language and violence in a more direct way than TV or cinema. 

Ngo Phuong Lan, the former director of the Department of Cinematography under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said that for several years now, web dramas haven’t been supervised effectively. 

Most web dramas only follow YouTube’s rules on content and aren’t subject to the cinematography department’s censorship, she said.

As of now, relevant authorities manage content on YouTube mostly by inspecting particular videos after they are already uploaded. 

Nguyen Thanh Chung from the Ministry of Information and Communications, said that his ministry, which has the needed technical expertise, and the culture ministry are planning to work together to supervise film distribution on the Internet. 

The cinematography department has proposed that local People’s Committees supervise content produced by businesses based in Vietnam, while the Ministry of Information and Communications does it for content produced abroad. 

Web producer Tuan Tran said he hopes censorship will apply fairly to all YouTube content creators, not just artists. "YouTube is a playing field for many people," he said. "If only artists are censored while others are let off the hook, then the work will not be done properly or thoroughly." 

 
 
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