Did Netflix Just Up Its Game With Asian Americans?

Last month, Netflix released one of its new original series – a Chinese drama called The Rise of Phoenixes. The trailer instantly grabs your attention with its breathtaking cinematography, elaborate staging, and a compelling premise. For anyone who is remotely familiar with the Asian cinema circle, you will also recognize the ultra high profile cast and production crew behind this masterpiece.

More interestingly, The Rise of Phoenixes is one of the few shows on Netflix that maintained a weekly release schedule. Netflix made its name by abandoning the traditional weekly release schedule to mirror millennials’ binge-watching behavior. Why is this show any different? That’s because it was part of a global release on 9/14 in more than a dozen languages. The premier wasn’t just on Netflix around the world, but also on TV and local streaming platforms in China where Netflix access is prohibited due to government regulations.

So, how did Netflix pull this off? And why did they invest hundreds of millions in producing an Asian drama, with only 6.4% of Asian American population in the U.S.?

Netflix has been eyeing the Asian segment for a while now. Since its debut in Asia in 2015, Netflix launched in every country in the region, except for the biggest market – China. According to Deloitte, China’s live streaming revenue will hit $4.4 billion by the end of 2018, up 32% from 2017. After years of negotiation with regulatory agencies in China, Netflix finally admitted the #NetflixEverywhere initiative has officially failed in China. Faced with strong international licensing and censorship challenges, Netflix decided to shift its strategy to establishing partnerships with local streaming services in China, namely iQiyi.Backed by Chinese search giant Baidu, iQiyi leverages Baidu’s AI-based algorithms to analyze user preferences and push content accordingly. With more than 500 million active users and 50.8 million subscribers, iQiyi is known as the “Netflix of China.” Its initial public offering in March 2018 was the largest IPO of a China company on U.S. markets since the debut of Alibaba in 2014. Built on a similar business model as Netflix, iQiyi pioneered original content production as a means to encourage users to switch from advertising-supported viewing to subscription-based consumption.

The partnership has been a strategic move for Netflix in both Chinese and U.S. market. Not only does it allow Netflix to release its content in the highly profitable Chinese market, it also provides ample Chinese-language content for Netflix to stream in the U.S. for its Asian American audiences. Since the announcement of its partnership in 2017, Netflix has been ramping up its acquisition of Chinese-language content. In 2017, Netflix acquired the rights to two original series produced by iQiyi – Tientsin Mystic, an adventure show set in the 1930s, and crime drama Burning Ice, as well as a film trilogy Chosen, co-produced by iQiyi and Sony Pictures. Most of these programs feature a diverse cast from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and America, aiming to connect with the diverse Asian American population here in the U.S.

That being said, all of this was amateur hour in comparison with The Rise of Phoenixes. Instead of just buying the rights to air, this 70-episode drama is a co-production between Netflix, iQiyi, and a handful of other Chinese production companies. Because of Netflix’s involvement, the production value is extremely high.  Comparable with one of Netflix’s most expensive shows, Marco Polo, The Rise of Phoenixes featured life-size replica of palace, intricate costumes, and expensive sets. It was also one of the first Chinese drama that adopted “real-time” voice recording during filming.

More importantly, Netflix’s co-production also means its ability to shape storyline towards the progressive viewpoint of today’s Asian Americans. The lead female character in The Rise of Phoenixes plays a significant role in the progression of the story. By hiding her true identity, she became a influential politician in the male-dominated Chinese imperial court. Similarly, the supporting female character also had to fight through traditional prejudice, but eventually gained recognition as a military general with her sharp decision-making skills and admirable leadership. These strong female characters are just part of Netflix’s influence on the storyline, but you can already get a glimpse of the uniqueness of this drama.

Next week, we will dive deeper into the cultural nuances of The Rise of Phoenixes, especially how it mirrors the crossings between modern Asian American perspective and the traditional Asian culture.Drop me a note if you are just as addicted to the show as I am!

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