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China technology

How big data helped ‘China’s Netflix’ iQiyi decide to back The Story of Yanxi Palace, a summer blockbuster about back-stabbing concubines

Runaway hit has surprised many in the industry because of the absence of A-listers in the cast, with Hong Kong actress Charmaine Sheh Sze-man arguably the most famous of the lot for a global audience

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2018, 9:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2018, 10:10pm

iQiyi chief executive Gong Yu recalls trusting veteran producer Yu Zheng to deliver a blockbuster hit with The Story of Yanxi Palace, a 70-episode drama about Qing dynasty imperial concubines back-stabbing each other to gain the emperor’s favour.

After all, his algorithms have concluded that the show, set in the court of Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), would likely be a winner, based on big data analysis of past viewership patterns of similarly themed shows.
Both man and machine proved right as Yanxi Palace concluded its run on China’s biggest online video streaming platform, garnering more than 13 billion views so far and smashing the one-day viewership record earlier this month. Big data analysis was again employed to determine the optimal time and pace of releasing new episodes to build up viewer anticipation.

Back-stabbing concubines draw record-breaking 530 million viewers

The runaway hit nonetheless surprised many in the industry because of the absence of A-listers in the cast, with Hong Kong actress Charmaine Sheh Sze-man arguably the most famous of the lot for a global audience. Sheh played the role of a virtuous concubine who became one of the show’s most poisonous schemers after being pushed to breaking point by another of the emperor’s concubines, whom she subsequently drove to suicide.

“While many of the cast and crew are young and green, Yu told me I can trust in their performance in making a brilliant drama,” Gong said at a celebration event in Beijing on Sunday. “As a modern-themed drama disguised under period costumes, Yanxi Palace is at its core a tale of how we yearn for kindness and wish sin to be punished.”

Like Netflix in the US, online streaming platforms like iQiyi have increasingly muscled in on the origination and distribution of content that was traditionally the preserve of state-backed national and provincial broadcasters.

The surge in entertainment spending has sparked a race among production houses and studios to secure the services of the most popular actors. The resulting inflation in fees has led to cases of tax evasion and illegal offshore currency transfers, with multiple agencies recently initiating a coordinated crackdown targeting high-profile celebrities.

Against that backdrop, Gong said that Yanxi Palace could serve as a “turning point” for the entertainment industry in showing that high-quality production “can draw audience affection.” Co-produced by iQiyi and Huanyu Film, the drama is now available in more than 70 markets globally, making it one of the most widely distributed period series produced by the country.

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Earlier this month, the country’s three streaming giants – iQiyi, Tencent Video and Youkou Tudou – pledged to cap the pay of television stars at 1 million yuan (US$145,200) per episode and no more than 50 million yuan for an entire season. A government ruling in September mandated that fees to actors cannot exceed 40 per cent of the total production budget. Alibaba, which operates Youkou Tudou, is the parent company of the South China Morning Post.

On Sunday evening, the cast and crew of Yanxi Palace gathered at an event held in a former courtyard home of a Qing dynasty prince.
Yu, the show’s producer, said that the drama “made some of my wishes come true, like promoting intangible culture heritage.” As part of his research, Yu was a constant visitor to the library at the Palace Museum and took notes manually as photography was not allowed.

No computers allowed, either.