Late last year, Netflix released Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, the latest film in its science fiction anthology series. What made it such a hot topic of conversation among its fandom was its interactivity: viewers could make decisions for the main character, Stefan, a young programmer building a video game based on a make-believe novel.
Just a week after Bandersnatch debuted, AltStory, a Beijing-based startup specializing in interactive film and television plays featuring real-life actors, released its first production – Mystery of Antiques: Origin of the Buddha Head – on Tencent Video, one of China’s most popular streaming platforms.
During a 20-minute escape-from-an-ancient-tomb adventure scene, viewers are asked to make a narrative-by-click choice on their PCs or smartphones: turning a key left or right when opening a door; choosing whether or not to save a companion; clicking on bricks to pass out of a trap. Within the first month of its release, 35.5% of the mini-film's viewers had chosen to replay it, using the interactive features to craft a different ending out of the three offered. (Bandersnatch, by comparison, offers viewers five different endings.)
Origin of the Buddha Head also earned a relatively high rating of 8.2 out of 10 on Douban.com, a popular Chinese social networking service that allows users to write, rate and comment on film, books, music and events.
Building on interactivity
When he returned to China in 2015 after receiving a master's in Financial Management from Johns Hopkins University, AltStory founder Gary Kun found it common to see young people staring intently into their smartphones, watching episodes of popular TV drama series or shows like The Voice of China while eating or simply taking a break from work or studies.
"Any product that quickly earns a big streaming flow on mobile devices, such as live streaming or mobile games, comes with interactivity," Kun said in an interview. "Just take a look at today’s kids. Their first reaction when getting an electronics device is to click or scroll," he said of the impetus behind AltStory's creation.
Kun took his cue, in part, from "bullet screens," or real-time comments from online video viewers that fly across device screens like bullets – a form of video-viewer interaction popular among young Chinese. Believing that such interactions could be taken a step further, he founded AltStory in 2017, diving deep into interactivity by making film and television productions with more complex interactive features.
Honing the production model
Origin of the Buddha Head took half a year to make because AltStory had to develop related technologies in order to standardize the process of building interactive features.
“Our hope is that the core abilities built through producing Origin of the Buddha Head are not a one-off thing," Kun said. "Therefore, we spent a much longer time on the project than this single project needed. This was to extract a general logic from [the project] for future use in new projects,” said Kun, who also founded BOUNDLESSX, a VR film production company, in May 2016.
He said the basic template generated from Origin of the Buddha Head and similar projects, including AltStory's second production series, Primary Suspects, are added into AltStory's video-editing toolbox to achieve a more precise interactivity matrix for future projects. In addition, "a set of tools for producing interactive content was also developed to enhance production efficiency," he said. "Thanks to these efforts, now it takes only one month to finish a new project."
Turning a profit and facing skeptics
AltStory is currently trying to shape its business model, selling broadcasting copyrights for its productions to streaming platforms and also sharing revenue from paid streaming users, as it has done for Primary Suspects. But whether the business model is strong enough to generate the revenue needed to cover AltStory's high technology development and production costs is yet to be seen.
However, making sufficient money to cover costs is an issue the entire interactive production industry faces, not just AltStory. One of the main problems is that for such productions, costs to pay the actors are high. One of AltStory's competitors, New One Studio, which is also based in China, kept casting costs to a minimum in creating the production Invisible Guardian, but it still may not have been enough for the company to recoup its costs.
"Interactive production is still in its early days, so we shouldn't place high expectations on it," Kun said on whether his company can turn a profit on its early productions.
Interactive productions like Origin of the Buddha Head have also come in for some criticism from video game players and movie aficionados alike. When asked about such interactive productions by TMTPOST, a digital news outlet covering the technology sector, one hardcore video game player said that the interactive element in mini-films offers "low operational interest" to most gamers – meaning the interactivity is insufficient to keep the average gamer's interest because it does not allow the viewer enough control.
Another movie fan interviewed by TMTPOST argued that the multiple potential endings that come with an interactive production "damage fatalism," opining that a movie "is an art with regrets." Which is to say, with regular movies the ending you get is what you pay for and what the filmmakers intended – and there is always something in the film that could have been improved upon.
To be continued...
In the first half of 2019, five big streaming platforms in China – iQiyi, Youku, Tencent Video, Bilibili and Mango TV – all joined the interactive video arena. Smile Time, a 40-minute love story/interactive production with 17 different endings, became a trending topic on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo within a week after it debuted on iQiyi on June 20.
Tencent Video is also set to launch an API-like open platform to allow content providers to make their productions based on a Tencent technical model of interactive video. One unidentified AltStory employee told Duojiaoyutou, a WeChat-based entertainment news outlet, that the new Tencent platform "gives a large space for professionally generated content."
"We can do some technical development on that open platform," the insider said.
In other words, look for AltStory to dive deeper into interactive movies, offering bigger plot lines, more frenzied action and, perhaps, endings with no regrets.