Viral videos becoming big earners for young Hong Kong filmmakers
The shift in ad revenue from traditional media to online has opened up the field for creative young people; as many as 3,000 companies have entered the field
With more than 400,000 subscribers and millions of hits on YouTube, Bomba commands a cult following. The four-person video production team have come a long way since their first short film in 2009 - an entry for a video competition organised by fashion brand I.T that won no prizes and was viewed just a few hundred times.
Fast-forward six years and Bomba is one of many benefactors of the online advertising boom. The team now has a number of large corporate clients, including Sony and Watsons.
Co-founder Fox Yu Kam-wing says advertising agencies have reached out to them since seeing their work on YouTube.
"Traditional TV commercial budgets are shifting and the online advertising market is now huge," he says. "Our business will certainly get bigger."
Two years after their flop in the I.T video competition, Bomba entered a contest to promote Vitasoy's lemon tea. This time, they were awarded first-runner-up prize - along with 385 cartons of lemon tea. With newfound confidence they joined an anti-pornography campaign organised by the Federation of Youth Groups. Yu played the role of a porn junkie, and was voted best male actor, while Bomba also scooped the prize for best videography. The team used the HK$7,000 prize money to buy equipment and start the production company.
Watch: Part of Bomba's video "My Annoying Lunch Pals"
Small video production houses in the mould of Bomba have mushroomed in Hong Kong as a result of the boom in online advertising. Hinson Cheung Tsz-hin, a producer at G.V.A. Creative, which was set up last year, estimates there are more than 3,000 such companies in the city.
G.V.A. director Leung Chung-man explains that increasingly affordable filmmaking equipment has made it easier to set up a production house.
"We didn't even need to look for start-up capital. We just paid the monthly rent of HK$7,000 for our premises in a Tsuen Wan industrial building and went straight into business," he says.
The key to attracting corporate clients is making videos that can go viral online and strike a chord with young people, says Yu, 27, a City University accounting graduate.
Bomba has two YouTube channels - Bomba Video Pro, for corporate work and short dramas; and Bomba Funny Live, where members discuss their personal lives and joke about Hongkongers' quirky traits (one recent video explored the difference between girls with short and long hair).
Yu says that to keep the Bomba brand fresh, it's important to open up and share personal issues, as well as frequently update social media channels such as Instagram and Facebook.
"We hope that through our work we can spark creativity among Hongkongers and spread positive energy," he says.
Half of Bomba's online videos are creative, while the rest are corporate work.
"Our clients usually give us the gist of what they want, then we come up with the plot, dialogue and everything else," Yu says.
Bomba's most recent job was with Watsons, which wanted a video to promote their environmentally friendly plastic water bottles.
Although the videos are made on a shoestring budget, friends help bring on board crew members such as a hairstylist, make-up artist, lighting technicians and a boom operator. Their big break came in 2012 when their science fiction short, modelled on The Avengers, caught the eye of Sony, which gave them HK$50,000 to make a promotional video for a PS3 game. The video soon racked up 1.1 million hits, greatly boosting their online cachet.
Another production company enjoying rising online stardom is Open Video, set up last year by five film graduates from the Hong Kong Design Institute. Open Video is known for its satirical and cynical take on problems local youngsters face. Their 14-minute short, Minibus, portrayed a young man's humiliation at living with his parents in public housing, and the pressure of trying to please his girlfriend's materialistic mother. The film has been viewed more than 450,000 times.
Open Video's YouTube channel caught the attention of RTHK, which commissioned them to make a promotional video for its news department. The team also received a HK$100,000 loan for entrepreneurship from the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, which helped them get the production house established. Their clients now include jeweller MaBelle, herbalist Hung Fook Tong and TVB. Co-founder Francis Tam Wah-yan says - as with other production companies - their popular videos poking fun at contemporary social issues helps build their brand.
"We have made six short videos so far. Issues we've touched on range from the impossibility of terminating an iCable contract, materialistic Hong Kong girls and [the difficulty of] buying a flat - all topics that strike a chord with young people," Tam says, adding that they do not accept corporate sponsorships because they want to maintain creative control and draw a line between commercial and creative work.
But, he concedes, they try not to be "too political" so they don't alienate clients. Tam also stresses that Open Video does not make technical videos. "If you're just looking for a production crew to make videos, you don't need us. What we sell are our ideas and creativity."
Shorts that last only several minutes can take months to make, Tam says, and money problems sometimes arise.
"Before, when we didn't have much money, we would run into cashflow problems because some clients don't pay until after the video is completed," he says.
"When we made Minibus, we had to go to minibus ranks in Kwun Tong and ask drivers to lend us a minibus for a night to make the video. Luckily, we found a really nice driver who drove the minibus for several hours at night for free. We eventually gave him a red packet to show our gratitude. As our business picks up, we are renting less equipment and clients are now willing to pay 50 per cent of the budget up front."
Base Work, which was set up earlier this year by a young team of four, has already shown signs of big ambitions. The group has made a 90-minute movie featuring veteran comedian Lau Yee-tat. Base Work's Eric Lam Siu-kei says the film - Final Project - will be shown in local cinemas this summer holiday.
"We hope the movie will create a splash and expose our company to more people. I spent one year making this movie, a murder mystery," says Lam, who is also its director.
"It cost HK$1 million to make, with the money coming from my own savings and sponsorship."
The movie won several prizes at the International Horror Hotel Film Festival & Convention in Ohio in the US.
Base Work's clients include a sneaker and a car brand. They have also made a seven-part online television series for Christian youth service Breakthrough, to encourage youngsters to ponder whether there are supernatural powers in the world.
Jennifer Lin Ka-Yi, senior brand manager of Wrigley Company Hong Kong for several of its bubblegum brands, says the company is starting to invest more in online media for stronger audience engagement - it recently began working with Bomba.
"In the past, we mainly focused on traditional mediums such as TV," she says. "Our video with Bomba is our first attempt to push the digital platform [and leverage social media]."
The four-minute video aired in February and made its way to YouTube's "Top 10 Videos in Hong Kong" list.
As of mid-March, more than 561,000 had watched the video, earning a YouTube Ad Leaderboard Award 2015. The result has been extremely encouraging, she says.
"We are thrilled to see the many positive comments on Facebook and YouTube. This certainly gives us motivation to [increase our digital budget allocation in future]."