When a man from a small town in ancient China witnessed his father being captured by a band of hooligans, he decided it was finally time to live out a life-long dream: Join a secret society that practices a form of mythical martial arts known as Qimen Dunjia. Once in the society, the man avenged his father and destroyed a monster seeking to end the secret organization.

Sound like a movie you would watch? It certainly is for millions of Chinese viewers.

Although the plot might sound cliche, Qimen Dunjia is currently one of the most popular online films on Chinese video streaming platforms as cinemas across the country remain closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s part of a larger trend of releasing cheap movies online for quick bucks, something that’s become more popular during the pandemic.

The 84-minute-long fantasy film was released exclusively on Tencent Video and Baidu’s iQiyi, two of the country’s biggest video streaming sites. Over the first 13 days of its release, the film earned more than 38 million yuan (US$5.4 million) -- and it only cost 20 million yuan (US$2.82 million) to make.

Qimen Dunjia was the highest grossing internet movie in China for the first quarter this year. (Picture: Qimen Dunjia/Weibo)

By comparison, a film with the same name and a similar story was released in cinemas back in 2017. That one cost 200 million yuan (US$28.3 million) to produce and grossed 299 million yuan (US$42.2 million). The profit was considered slim for a theatrical release. And even though both versions are rated poorly on the popular movie review site Douban, the cheaper one comes out ahead with a 5.4 rating compared with the 2017 film’s 4.4.

Qimen Dunjia is what used to be known as an “online big movie.” These types of direct-to-streaming films started gaining traction in 2015, attracting inexperienced film crews looking for fast money and easy fame by focusing on themes considered unsuitable for mainstream audiences. These include genre films featuring zombies or ghosts and sexually graphic films. China’s strict censorship rules keep these films out of cinemas, but the B-movie quality also doesn’t help.

Qimen Dunjia is already one of the more costly internet films in China. In 2015, a zombie-themed internet movie named Monks Come Off the Mountain, which cost 280,000 yuan (US$39,500) to produce, famously made 24 million yuan (US$3.4 million).

Audiences who enjoy these types of movies would be willing to subscribe to a service that offered them, according to Wilson Chow, PwC’s global head of technology, media and telecommunications. “These niche markets would be a platform for amateur or non-famous film directors and producers, actors and actresses who can gain fame and popularity online first,” he said.

The number of internet movies surged in 2016, along with their popularity, when there were still few restrictions on this type of online content. But authorities soon started taking action.

New rules for online audio and video content in 2017 stipulated that movies and TV shows had to be vetted by authorities before being released. Since then, the number of internet movies produced in China has been steadily declining.

The comedy Lost in Russia was supposed to be released in Chinese cinemas during this year’s Lunar New Year, but it went straight to streaming in January when cinemas closed because of the coronavirus outbreak. (Picture: Huanxi Media)

Now the pandemic seems to be giving internet movies a new life. In the first quarter alone, 14 internet movies earned more than 10 million yuan, according to People’s Daily, citing data by Tencent Video, iQiyi and Alibaba’s Youku. Only 15 internet movies achieved that in all of 2019.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)

With more people turning to online entertainment, streaming services are also looking to bolster their offerings with original content.

“To meet the high user demand during the pandemic, many streaming platforms have increased their own content products,” Chow said. “Including online-only movies, which can be produced [in] a relatively short time with lower production budgets.”

But the newfound popularity of internet movies doesn’t necessarily mean they’re here to stay. More than 70% of people look forward to returning to theaters, according to a survey from China Film Association and online ticketing service Maoyan Entertainment.

Once big-budget films return to theaters, it might also be difficult to get people to spend time on poor-quality movies made quickly for online release. One report shows that only 12 out of 72 recently released internet movies even had enough reviews to get a rating on their Douban pages. Only two of those films had a rating above 6 out of 10. Despite its popularity and more than 11,000 reviews, Qimen Dunjia wasn’t one of them.

Chow also said that even though cinephiles may stick to their online viewing habits going forward, the longevity of the internet movie trend will depend on the quality of the films.

“We still believe that mainstream movies would still be released in cinemas and favored by people who enjoy the ‘total entertainment package,’ an experience only cinemas can bring,” Chow said. He added that better sound, larger screens and dining out were all benefits of going to the theater.