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B.C. filmmaker goes vertical for mobile audiences

Richmond-based studio is exploring commercial content opportunities in the era of short-form video
Eric Zhang, owner of Richmond-based October Studio, says the rise of vertical video productions presents opportunities for B.C. film producers

Some B.C. film and television producers are flipping the script and creating professional content designed to be consumed on small screens.

Eric Zhang, owner of Richmond-based October Studio Ltd., was last month at a screening event for his newest production. It’s different from what he has produced in the past—a series with 51 episodes, where each episode is only two minutes in length. And, it was filmed vertically.

The drama, called The Contractual Couple, was designed for mobile phone screens and audiences used to consuming content on their mobile devices in short, fragmented bursts.

“The whole series is only more than one hour — equivalent to the length of a film — and production took around 10 days, much faster than the regular filming cycle,” said Zhang.

This was a partnership between October Studio and DramaBox, a Singapore-based company focused on vertical short-format TV dramas. The series is available for viewing in North America.

“People’s attention span is very short nowadays and many don’t have the time and patience to sit down and watch a couple of hours of long film,” said Zhang.

“The idea of this kind of production is that people can watch it on their phone in their fragments of time, when they are waiting to pick up their children, in a commute or during lunch break. Because each episode is so short, they can leave and pick it up easily.”

This is not the first time B.C. companies have turned to productions of this nature. Quibi, a short-form streaming service focused on mobile devices, launched in 2020 in the U.S. and had a number of Canadian-produced shows in the works.

However, the company wound down its operations after less than seven months after failing to meet its subscription projections, amid other challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But investors have not given this business model a death sentence. In fact, high-quality, short-form mobile-device series are showing signs of life.

DramaBox is looking to expand the scale of its productions by working with B.C producers such as Zhang. Meanwhile, Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese counterpart owned by the same parent company ByteDance, announced in January it would provide millions of dollars to support outstanding short series producers on its platform, according to Chinese media.

Adam McKay, an American screenwriter and film producer, also released the first episode of a 15-episode series on TikTok in November, making him the first traditional Hollywood producer to invest in a scripted series on the popular platform.

Zhang said he already has other short-form vertical video productions lined up and sees opportunities for B.C. film producers as companies such as DramaBox look to produce in the province, and take advantage of its filming resources and comparatively low production costs.

Will vertical short-format productions last?

Despite the already-proven popularity of short-form audience-submitted videos on platforms such as TikTok, experts say it is unclear whether vertical short-form scripted series will last.

“I love every kind of experimentation with the medium, so I think it’s really cool that people are experimenting to make very short films that are satisfying,” said Laura Marks, contemporary arts professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

She said one of the advantages of short-form video productions is their lower carbon footprint and lower production costs. There’s an established market that includes successful short films and short-film festivals, including the 2023 Small File Media Festival hosted by SFU.

“It might be less energy intensive if they shoot them really quickly and don’t do a really big production. And also, the viewer is not watching as many total minutes of video,” she said.

As people’s viewing habits are influenced by platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube—which each offer short-form streaming options—Marks said she sees potential for growth in higher-quality, scripted, short-form films and series.

But filmmakers will need to adjust to the realities of how users consume content on their phones. For example, having too many details and characters in a scene can crowd a small screen. Scripts will also need to consider how to grab an audience’s attention in a short amount of time.

Meanwhile, many feature-length films are getting longer, and increasingly include longer shots to provide audiences with a more immersive experience. So, “there are these two tendencies going on,” said Marks.

However, some experts say that if video platforms such as TikTok are flooded with professionally produced productions, it may crowd out the “casually made” content that offers an alternative to commercial productions.

“The ‘vertical’ market—if it is a market—is dominated by amateurs and quasi-professionals, and the vertical frame is part of a ‘homemade’ aesthetic that people like on platforms like TikTok,” said William Brown, assistant professor of cinema and media studies at the University of British Columbia.

“The more professional productions become, the more they will dilute those platforms,” which may make audiences move away from the platform, he said.

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