The summer has just passed, and the top video platforms in China are preparing for a new round of drama preheating. Youku, iQiyi, and Tencent Video, as the main broadcasting platforms for Chinese dramas at the current stage, have announced more than 200 upcoming dramas in their 2023-2024 lineup, which can be said to have gathered the important forces of Chinese dramas, and also serve as a window to glimpse the industry's development and market prospects.
Whether it is the adjustment layout of the conventional track or the forward-looking exploration of the innovative field, every move of the top platforms has attracted great attention. The content matrix formed by this not only reflects the platform's capture and contemplation of the changes in public aesthetic taste as project managers, but also influences the future trend of the industry.
What genres of drama dominate?
In terms of genre, the three major platforms, still regard costume dramas and urban dramas as their main focus. After all, these two types of dramas have always been incubators for blockbusters and star-making tools, which can bring considerable revenue to the platforms in terms of membership services, artist management, and peripheral derivatives, and broaden their business models and monetization channels.
Therefore, the three major platforms have all invested heavily in costume dramas and urban dramas, which can be seen from the quantity and configuration. For example, Tencent's historical dramas include "The Legend of Shen Li" and "Joy of Life 2", "Guardians of the Dafeng" and "The Last Immortal", among others, some of which have already shown the potential to become blockbusters.
iQiyi's top historical dramas include "Fox Spirit Matchmaker: Yue Hong", "Fox Spirit Matchmaker: Zhu Ye", "A Journey to Love", and "Story of Kunning Palace", among others. Youku has "A Record of a Mortal's Journey to Immortality" and "Qing Ming Shang He Tu Mi Ma", "The Grand Princess", and others, which combine historical dramas with fantasy, history, and romance, showcasing their ambition to capture audiences from all walks of life.
As for urban dramas, Tencent has "The Tale of Rose", "Xiao Ri Zi", "Our Days", and others, iQiyi has "Rising With the Wind", "City in the City", "Never Too Late", and others, Youku has "Stories of Youth and Love", "The Hope", "Love Is Panacea", "In Between", and others. In addition to continuing to focus on conventional branches such as urban + emotional and family dramas, the three platforms have also extended the combination of urban dramas with new sub-genres such as business wars, finance, and silver hair, further enriching the public's viewing needs for urban dramas.
In recent years, the three major platforms have also increased their investment in suspense and period dramas, which have produced many popular dramas. iQiyi's Mist Theater has announced multiple new dramas, with Sun Li starring in "Breaking The Shadows" as the flagship drama, as well as "The Limbo", "Interlaced Scenes", "Tell No One", "Man Hunt", and others. In addition to the suspense short dramas in the Mist Theater, iQiyi also has long dramas in the genres of suspense, crime, Republican era, and war, such as "Detective Chinatown Season 2", "Back for You", "A Lonely Hero’s Journey", and others.
Tencent and Youku are slightly behind in terms of the number of suspense dramas in reserve. Youku's established suspense dramas include "Sincere Hero", "Bian Shui Wang Shi", "Yin Man Zhi Shi", "Secret Love", "Xin Sheng", and others, while most of the others are still in the preparatory stage. Tencent has "The Truth", "Chase the Truth", "Black and White Forest", and others.
In terms of period dramas, iQiyi holds spy war dramas "Golden Journey" and "In the Name of the Brother", as well as the era business war drama "Created in China" produced by DAYLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT. The latter also appears in Tencent's new lineup, in addition to Wang Kar-wai's debut drama series "Blossoms Shanghai". Youku has "Battle of Shang Gan Ling" and "The Guardians ".
The slogan "Whoever got women's favor, wins the world" still holds true for video platforms. In terms of themes, Tencent has the most reserves among the three platforms, with urban women ensemble dramas such as "Her Islands", "There Will Be Ample Time", and "Fry Me to the Moon". iQiyi has "Unspoken" and "Perfect Her", and Youku has "Fight for Beauty".
Strong collaboration behind the scenes
Apart from the content itself, the success of a film and television drama also requires close cooperation among the cast and crew. Let's start with the cast, as it not only affects the quality of the drama, but also serves as an attractive signboard for platforms to attract investment and expand their membership business. From the newly announced cast of over 200 dramas, we can roughly see the casting strategies of video platforms.
For example, Tencent's period drama "Blossoms Shanghai" stars Hu Ge; Song Jia plays the role of the era model principal Zhang Guimei in "Da Shan Li De Nv Xiao", and Zhang Xin Cheng is the male lead in "Created in China". "The Tale of Rose" features Liu Yifei as the only female lead with multiple male actors.
The popular male-oriented drama sequel "Joy of Life 2" brings back the original cast; "Guardians of the Dafeng" combines period drama with realism, with Dylan Wang and Tian Xiwei as the leads; Dilireba plays an anti-human trafficking police officer in "Sword Rose"; Zhao Liying stars and serves as executive producer in "The Legend of Shen Li".
In "Her Islands", Xu Fan and Ma Sichun play mother and daughter; Dou Jingtong portrays the story of a retired female boxer turned restaurateur in "Ta De Sheng Cun Zhi Dao"; Gong Jun makes his debut as a detective in the crime suspense drama "The Truth"; Wu Lei and Zhao Jinmai collaborate in "Amidst a Snowstorm of Love"; Li Xian takes on the role of a funeral director in his debut as a funeral director in "There Is a Lover in My Hometown"; Zhao Lusi is the female lead in "The Last Immortal".
In iQiyi's Republican-era spy drama "Golden Journey", Wang Yibo takes on the male lead role; Qin Hao and Yang Mi star in "In the Name of the Brother"; Liu Shishi and Liu Yuning portray "A Journey to Love"; Tang Yan makes a comeback after many years in "A Moment But Forever"; Yin Tao and Guo Jingfei star in "As Husband as Wife"; Zhang Guoli, Zhang Tielin, and Wang Gang appear in "Golden Trio"; Ma Yili stars in the suspense drama series "Interlaced Scenes"; Zhang Songwen and Rong Zishi collaborate again in the suspense drama "Lost in the Shadows."
Youku's "Battle of Shang Gan Ling" brings together powerhouse actors Huang Xuan and Wang Lei, while Zhang Songwen takes on the lead role in the historical drama "Qing Ming Shang He Tu Mi Ma"; Zhao Jinmai partners with Zhang Linghe in the ancient romance drama "The Grand Princess"; Yang Zi and Fan Chengcheng are the leads in the urban love drama "Stories of Youth and Love".
In summary, the leading actors and actresses in the selection of male and female leads for costume dramas are all popular and highly regarded actors among the internet generation. The platforms use actors with online popularity to ensure the basic audience base for costume dramas, with the aim of increasing user stickiness and occupying a high position in attracting new members.
In terms of the cast of period dramas, either the middle-aged actors with strong abilities can take on the lead roles to enhance the quality of the drama, or young actors with skilled performances can dissolve the inherent heaviness of the genre and bring freshness to the audience.
Alternatively, a combination of popular actors and experienced actors can attract attention and cater to the audience's appetite, aligning with the current mainstream aesthetics. For period dramas with a certain foundation, regardless of the type of actors selected by the platform, their acting skills and suitability for the roles are the primary criteria. However, when popular actors appear in period dramas, they need to avoid the pitfalls of idolization that have occurred in the past.
Different branches of urban dramas also have different casting strategies. Top-rated idol dramas pair up with popular young actors to attract attention and are one of the main driving forces for membership and revenue generation. Female-oriented dramas either pair experienced actors with young actors with skilled performances, or choose actresses from the group of talented middle-aged actors. Family dramas are supported by actors born in the 1970s and 1980s who have strong acting skills.
With the frequent success of suspense dramas in recent years, competition has intensified. The platforms have increased their investment in production costs, and accordingly, the status of the cast has been elevated. A refined approach is beneficial for the industry's development. Sun Li and Ma Yili made their debut in iQiyi's Mist Theater, while Qin Hao, Zhang Songwen, and Rong Zishan, among other actors of various ages, remain active. New blood like Ren Min and Gong Jun has also joined the industry.
In addition to the actors who interact with the audience, the behind-the-scenes contributors of a film or TV show are equally important as they ensure the quality of the work. In the new lineup of Youku, iQiyi, and Tencent, one can see that top-tier creators have entered the web drama field and have explored a wide range of themes, with some even crossing over from film to television.
As mentioned earlier, renowned film director Wong Kar-wai directed Tencent's period drama "Blossoms Shanghai," in addition to which Tencent also has Zheng Xiaolong as executive producer for "Small Police Station," Wang Jun directing "The Tale of Rose," and the team behind the hit dramas "My Heroic Husband" and "New Life Begins" working on "Guardians of the Dafeng."
iQiyi has also attracted numerous well-known creators, with Lu Yang directing the historical suspense drama "The Mutations," Shen Yan directing the urban drama "Born to Run," and Yao Xiaofeng as the director of "Golden Journey."
The list of creators in Youku's lineup is equally impressive, with Liu Weiqiang directing "Battle of Shang Gan Ling," Yang Yang directing "A Record of a Mortal's Journey to Immortality," Zhang Yimou as the producer and Lv Xing as the director of "The First Shot," and Shen Ao, who achieved remarkable box office success with the film "No More Bets," directing "Regeneration."
At the same time, Youku, iQiyi, and Tencent continue to establish stable partnerships with leading production companies, ensures a steady supply of high-quality content in various genres to meet the viewing preferences of different audience groups. The lineups released by these three major platforms are splendid, and if the rate of fulfillment is high, next year might witness a boom in TV series. However, with the constant evolution of public aesthetics and changes in the online drama-watching atmosphere, until the very end, the winner remains uncertain.