Selling screenplays via livestreams: Temporary pandemic remedy or long-term new trend?

By Bi Mengying Source:Global Times Published: 2020/4/28 16:23:40

A Xingmei cinema in North China's Tianjin Municipality remains closed during the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo: VCG

With the closure of theaters and the postponement and cancelations of movies and film festivals, the COVID-19 pandemic has been casting a shadow over the entertainment industry across the globe. From January 1 to April 26, 8,809 film and TV companies have deregistered in China, exceeding the number of companies that deregistered throughout the entire year of 2017, the National Business Day reported on Monday.  

Undoubtedly, China's film and TV industry has been taking a hit from the pandemic, but Chinese screenwriters have been proactively tackling the distress by selling screenplays through livestreams.

A livestream held on Saturday by Bianjubang, a screenwriter-focused media company in Beijing, attracted nearly 5,000 viewers who watched on as six Chinese screenwriters shared their work. This was the third livestream held by Bianjubang. The screenwriters each had 10 minutes to pitch their screenplays and five minutes to answer questions from the audience. If any production team is interested in the screenplay, Bianjubang will put them in touch with the screenwriter.

It's not just screenwriters; some Chinese writers have also turned to livestreaming to promote their work. A livestream by Chinese writer Chen Kaihong, who is known by his pen name Xue Mo, on Thursday, World Book Day, drew more than 90,000 viewers and his new book Shanshen de Jiandui (lit. translation: The pile of arrows of the mountain's god) sold more than 10,000 copies within a single day. Likewise, the livestream of another writer, Shen Shixi, on April 12 attracted 140,000 viewers and his work Dream of the Wolf King sold more than 10,000 copies that day.

Stirring discussions

The livestreams have caused quite a stir among the public with a significant amount of media coverage and online discussions. Many netizens said that they appreciated the opportunity to interact with their beloved writers and meet the behind-the-scenes screenwriters. Many applauded the screenwriters and writers' efforts to turn the situation created by the outbreak around and suggested that the model is a breakthrough that should be carried on in the future.

However, some industry insiders have been voicing doubt about whether livestreaming will actually have any impact.

"It's hard to say whether the model of selling screenplays through livestreams will stay… It may lead to mass production of screenplays of low quality. The screenwriters may be more drawn towards profit given the fast pace of this selling model, which could make it harder for them to produce quality work," commented a writer who goes by the pen name Qianyuan.

Director Xiang Kai told the Global Times on Monday that sharing screenplays through livestreams may ruin surprises for audiences, and it may also result in disputes on intellectual property (IP) rights. Rather than considering it a feasible plan, Xiang regards it as an act to "draw public attention" and "play the sympathy card amid the pandemic."

Yet novelist and screenwriter Zhao Yue doesn't see selling screenplays through livestreaming as posing any challenge for IP right protection.

"The screenwriters are sharing the outline of their screenplays instead of the screenplay per se. No matter online or offline, you have to share your outline with the buyer. The only potential difference may be that some IP companies that help screenwriters sell screenplays, though not all of them, may provide extra protective measures on request, such as signing a non-disclosure agreement with the interested buyers," Zhao told the Global Times on Sunday.

While Zhao pointed out that the advantages of such a novel attempt are obvious - it is low-cost, saves time and allows them to reach a wide audience - he had reservations about whether any deals can be successfully achieved through these types of livestreams.     

Experimenting with changes

"We plan to carry out six to 10 such livestreams. We hope there will be deals struck from them… Even if the screenwriters don't get any deals or even receive terrible feedback from the livestream, it would still be very meaningful. Even if after 10 sessions, no screenplays are sold, it will surely provide the public some data that allows us to review the situation together and see where we can go from there," Du Hongjun, the founder of Bianjubang, told the Global Times Monday.

Du noted that the further development of the film and TV industry can only be achieved if they have the courage to break the rules.

"For instance, after people saw novel films like Dying to Survive, or earlier works such as Monkey King: Hero is Back, they came to realize that we can actually make such works. The industry's development relies on innovation, either in terms of content or format," he added.

Director and screenwriter Song Fangjin sees great potential in such attempts, which may be revolutionary changes. 

"The selling of screenplays in China hasn't been very transparent or smooth. It depends more on the connections and recommendations of people who are in certain social circles. This new model opens up new possibilities for the process," Song told the Global Times on Monday.

At the same time, some pointed to China's thriving online literature scene, explaining it takes time for people to accept and recognize new things. Screenwriter Ding Hao joined a livestream during the outbreak. Besides selling his works, he also enjoyed interacting with a larger audience.

"It turned out to be the greatest pleasant surprise for me this year… I hope more writers can try livestreams to show their talent and share their knowledge and experience with more people," he said.

Seeking international cooperation

Zhao noted that even though the pandemic has been a very hard time for the industry and some may not survive, but looking at things from a different angle, the situation has forced people to aim higher and work harder to some extent. 

Sharing similar views with Zhao, Song noted, "Screenwriters probably are the only workforce in the industry that can continue working amid the pandemic. A lot of time, screenwriters may be asked to write about certain topics by companies. Now we can make use of this window to take our time and contemplate more deeply about our creations."

During his livesteam, Du extended an invitation to screenwriters from different countries to exchange notes and share their feelings in order to get through this challenging time together. 

"I think during the pandemic, writers across the globe will surely bring more thought-provoking work to the world that gives people power to move forward," said Du.

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