It happens a lot these days: while commuting to work, you log into your Facebook account with your smartphone and find several friends have shared the same video on their feeds. Clicking to see what the fuss is about, you inevitably discover that the video turns out to be a clip promoting a product or service.
Whether they are called mini films, micro movies, or shorts, video vignettes built around a core narrative have become an attractive medium for businesses trying to reach more consumers, as well as aspiring filmmakers seeking to build audiences for their work. This boom in micro movies has been made possible by the spread of smartphones and the ubiquity of social media.
Global brands from Pepsi to Prada have used micro movies, which often feature celebrities such as mainland actress Zhou Xun, to reach a swelling army of young digital natives. Smaller retailers, such as shoe specialist Venilla Suite, have also been quick to make use of the trend. Even the convenience store chain 7-Eleven is riding the wave: for the past two years, it has sponsored short film competitions run through IFVA (Incubator for Film and Visual media in Asia) and M21, a media initiative under the wing of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups.
Rose Yeung, sales and marketing director of 7-Eleven in Hong Kong, says their campaign aims to encourage a new generation of filmmakers. "Our main target is local youths with passion who make films that speak for them," Yeung says.
But as all films must feature the store as the primary backdrop, the exercise also yields a series of short videos promoting the brand. "Mini movies can do an excellent job in reflecting how the city feels about the store, and connect audience's daily lives with the store," she says.
Television commercials are assured a degree of audience penetration, but online clips may not have a significant promotional effect unless they go viral.
Still, social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook are affordable channels for smaller companies which don't have the budget for a traditional marketing campaign to get their message across.
For instance, Meet the One Here, a seven-minute film from local venture Speed Dating Fever, was shot in one day for about HK$50,000. Company founder Frankie Wong San-faat says the flexibility of short digital films in terms of budget and usage gives him an effective way to promote his business. The clip has achieved more than 20,000 views and he says that a number of users signed up for the dating service after watching the film.
Conventional marketing methods such as print advertisements may not be as effective as in the past, since people are increasingly reading their news online, Wong says.
"The cost of traditional advertising is high, and rather one-off. But with internet marketing, I can promote our videos more flexibly. When we have more money, we can buy space on YouTube and Facebook, and when we don't, we just drop it for a while."
One lesson he learned from his brand-building efforts is that promoting the film takes as much effort and care as producing it, if it is to be an online success. "Very few people will notice your film if you just put it online without pushing it. So to maximise exposure, we print a QR code linking to the video on all our name cards, brochures and flyers." But the term "micro movie" can mean different things to different to people.
While some people define a micro movie as a clip shorter than five minutes, most online movies are five to 10 minutes long. And there are productions as long as 45 minutes claiming to be micro movies.
James Leung Wah-sing, a veteran art director on many Hong Kong films and a prolific commercials director since 1997, recently completed the 12-minute micro movie, Time Lapse, for Georgia Coffee's latest marketing campaign.
Leung says the length of the work is irrelevant. "I think 'micro movie' is just a term derived from the mainland referring to clips that are made for marketing purposes," he says. "In the past, we simply called it a short film, or experimental film. For me, as long as the film isn't shown in the cinema, it can be called a micro movie, whether it is for online viewing or showing to friends or clients."
Leung says clients are increasingly asking him to make micro movies which can also be edited into a television commercial. The budget of a micro movie can vary from several thousand dollars to the equivalent of a low-budget, full-length feature film.
"But many clients don't understand that when a micro movie becomes an extended version of a [commercial] with excessive product placement, the audience will simply withdraw, or even stop watching," he says. "A micro movie is essentially a film with a plot that can keep people watching. We had long discussions with [ad] agencies and clients to establish that."
Technology now enables anyone with a smartphone to make their own micro movie and publish it online, and Canto-pop singer-songwriter Rannes Man Yan-ching reckons this helps new talent to get noticed. "As a singer, I have met many talented people behind the scenes who have no way to break through unless someone signs them," she says. "Now they have a free platform to showcase their works."
Man directed some of her music videos for fun and became involved in micro movie projects with friends. Her directorial debut, the 30-minute Imagine Inventory, took an award in the Hong Kong Heart short-film competition earlier this year.
Another of her films, a 17-minute short about lesbian relationships, has scored more than 477,000 views since December. With her two works, Man began receiving commissions from companies, among them a smartphone maker which asked her to create a short around their latest model.
Still, the bulk of micro movies are personal projects and emerging talents such as Man prize the freedom they have online. "There are almost no boundaries to creativity when you choose to publish online, whereas conventional movies often face constraints," she says.
Recognising the trend, local production company Salon Films initiated a mini movie project with partners from the mainland, Japan and the US last March to give young talent a platform to shine.
"Hong Kong has a great tradition and system in filmmaking," says Eleven Tsui of Salon Film's content development team. "But in recent years filmmakers have looked to the mainland market and there seems to be a gap between generations. We hope to build a bridge and give young creatives a chance to show their ideas though these shorts."
The partners will invest in 10 mini movies annually, each about 30 to 40 minutes long, for television broadcast across the regions. What they value most is a good script, not only from young directors but also online writers. Three films have been produced so far, including a new work by documentary maker Cheung King-wai and the debut by a local film school graduate.
"Productions for this project are much more sophisticated than mini movies seen online as we have to distribute them overseas," Tsui says. "We also keep an eye on mini movies online, but look more at the ideas instead of the technique. After all, the business model of mini movies circulated online is very different from what we are doing now."
Tsoi Hak-kin of the Hong Kong Micro-Movie Production Centre says most Hong Kong works tend to be about romance and relationships. That's probably because their target audience is youngsters with smartphones, he says. "It is ironic that the message of the films that we distribute online is that there is a life outside of cyberspace," Tsoi says.
Some film veterans such as Leung think youngsters too often resort to using "gimmicks" to get more views and clicks, which is detrimental for the long-term health of filmmaking.
"Young talent and marketing people chase after view counts. But there are too many ways to achieve click-through rates. You can ask someone to strip and runaround in Causeway Bay, and it will surely guarantee you a lot of views. But what is the creative merit of that?"
Leung suggests that young filmmakers go back to basics, and make projects from their hearts. "Everyone wants instant attention. It is easy to get your name heard. But the kind of name you want is a question that young creative talent need to consider carefully," he says.
Man confesses a couple of her projects were made with view count in mind because they were for clients, but says the online platform remains fertile ground for nurturing creative talent.
A pet lover with four dogs, she is now working on a short about animal rights in Hong Kong in collaboration with NPV, a non-profit group providing affordable veterinary services.
The flood of clips circulating online makes for fierce competition, but the singer-turned-director reckons that should be a motivating factor.
"It makes no difference to this audience whether you are a big director or a nobody. People have limited time and endless choices, and they will only watch the best work to the end." she says.
"So you can only ask yourself why your film is not as popular as others and try to improve your work."