When Albee Zhang received an offer to produce cheesy short-form features made for phones last spring, she was skeptical, and so, she declined.
But the offers kept coming. Finally, Ms. Zhang, who has been a producer for 12 years, realized it could be a profitable new way of storytelling and said yes.
Since last summer, she has produced two short-form features and is working on four more for several apps that are creating cookie-cutter content aimed at women.
Think: Lifetime movie cut up into TikTok videos. Think: soap opera, but for the short attention span of the internet age.
The biggest player in this new genre is ReelShort, an app that offers melodramatic content in minute-long, vertically shot episodes and is hoping to bring a successful formula established abroad to the United States by hooking millions of people on its short-form content.
ReelShort is owned by Crazy Maple Studio, a company in Northern California that is backed by the Beijing-based digital publisher COL Group.
ReelShort’s titles include “The Double Life of My Billionaire Husband,” “I Got Married Without You” and “Bound by Vendetta: Sleeping With the Enemy.” The shows are formulaic: the plotlines include romance and revenge, the characters are archetypical and the dialogues are simple.
The extremely short genre gained popularity in the Asia-Pacific region during the pandemic, and Joey Jia, the chief executive of Crazy Maple Studio, took notice.
ReelShort aims to get people hooked as quickly as possible, with much of the action happening in the first few super short episodes. “This is a pay as you go model,” Mr. Jia said. “If people are confused by the story, they leave.”
The cost of making these features is relatively low, $300,000 or less, according to Crazy Maple Studios. The crews are small and partly made up of recent film graduates in Los Angeles, according to actors who worked on the productions.
Viewers can watch dozens of minute-long episodes on ReelShort for free via multiple platforms, including YouTube and TikTok. But at some point, they must either pay or watch ads to unlock subsequent episodes.
Sometimes people pay as much as $10 or $20 to keep watching, Ms. Zhang, the producer, said. “Isn’t that a crazy business?”
In December, Mr. Jia told The Wall Street Journal that the company had already made $22 million in revenue.
In the United States, ReelShort is trying to succeed where the short-form content company Quibi failed. Quibi launched in early 2020 and shut down that same year, partly because of what its founder Jeffrey Katzenberg called bad timing: The app offered five- to 10-minute videos of news and entertainment for people on the go, right as people stopped going anywhere because of pandemic lockdowns.
And while Quibi focused on more highbrow content with A-list stars, ReelShort is doing the opposite: It’s giving people juicy plot points, from werewolves to evil step mothers to secret billionaire husbands to more werewolves.
“We learned a lot from Quibi,” said Mr. Jia, the Crazy Maple Studio executive. ReelShort isn’t trying to appeal to everyone, like Quibi tried to do, he added.
“To build a successful mobile app, you need to find out your core audience,” he said. And that audience is women who love soap operas. (ReelShort’s audience is roughly 75 percent female, Mr. Jia said.)
Mr. Jia said he wasn’t trying to compete with streamers like Netflix. If you’re free to sit on your couch for a few hours, ReelShort is probably not the app you’re opening. It’s for those in-between moments: at a bus stop, in the bathroom.
“We are using a very different business model,” Mr. Jia said, “and serving a different time.”
ReelShort is hardly the first app owned or partially owned by a Chinese company to break through in the United States. TikTok and the shopping apps Shein and Temu have been among the most downloaded in recent months in Apple’s American app store.
But for TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, this has been problematic. Lawmakers in the United States, Europe and Canada have expressed concerns that TikTok and its parent company may put people’s sensitive personal information into the hands of the Chinese government, and they have worked to restrict access to the wildly popular app. ReelShort has not faced the same kind of pressure.
Last month, ReelShort was downloaded one million times and earned $5 million in revenue in Apple’s app store, according to the data firm Sensor Tower, and it was downloaded three million times in the Google Play Store, earning $3 million in revenue there. Since November, ReelShort has ranked somewhere in the top 15 of most popular entertainment apps in both app stores on most days. (For a few days in November, ReelShort even surpassed TikTok as the most popular entertainment app in Apple’s app store.)
In total, more than seven million people downloaded ReelShort in the United States in 2023, on Apple and Android phones combined, according to data.ai. Worldwide, there were more than 24 million downloads last year. After the United States, India is ReelShort’s next-largest market, followed by the Philippines.
Kasey Esser, a Los Angeles-based actor who has worked on short-form shows for ReelShort and other apps, described the format as this generation’s soap opera. He drew a comparison to channels with made-for-TV content, such as Hallmark.
“People know exactly the story they’re going to be getting, but they will still watch it,” Mr. Esser, 34, said. “They will still love it.”
For the actress Samantha Drews, ReelShort was a chance to play different types of characters. “I can say now that I’ve been cast in 15 to 16 features in the last few years,” Ms. Drews, 25, said. “That’s not something every actor can say.”
Camille James Harman, 57, had a supporting role in the 2018 movie “Vice,” the Dick Cheney biopic starring Christian Bale that received several Oscar nominations. But she said she received a lot more responses for her starring role as an evil stepmother in the 2023 ReelShort production “The Double Life of My Billionaire Husband.”
Multiple other apps with names that are still unknown to many — Sereal+, ShortTV, DramaBox, FlexTV — have started producing such features, hoping to cash in on ReelShort’s formula.
The quantity of new titles coming out on these platforms is greater than that of many traditional streaming services. And if it’s up to Mr. Jia, that will continue in 2024: “The goal this year is to deliver another 100 titles,” he said.
As ReelShort pumps out its content, the quality of the productions is getting better, said Leomax He, who directed three productions for the app last year. Some shoots now employ a stunt or intimacy coordinator.
“Budgets have gotten larger, the cameras are better, the crews are getting larger,” said Mr. He, 27.
Major studios have not yet dabbled in the genre, but some actors and filmmakers speculated that American companies would soon enough start creating their own short-form content.
“That’s why I am doing so many of these,” Mr. Esser, the actor, said. “It’s a unique opportunity to be the first guy known from these in the U.S.”