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Is the US Ready for an All-Chinese Content Streaming Service?

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For the non-Chinese speaker, gaining access to current, high quality Chinese TV and film outside of China requires determination. Of course Netflix has a small selection of newer, sometimes binge-worthy Chinese TV shows and films, but the hoops one has to jump through to access a wider array of content (downloading the proper extensions, brushing up on your language skills) make it inconvenient at best.

New Chinese content streaming service BAMBU hopes to make it effortless, in the US at least, starting in mid-2019. The service will offer content “previously unavailable to American audiences” that caters specifically to open-minded Millennial and Gen-X viewers. Is that you? I’m willing to bet… yes.

Cinedigm, the company behind the service, has already obtained hundreds of hours of content through licensing deals with Chinese entertainment industry heavyweights such as Youku, CCTV, Starrise Media and China Lion. Given what they’ve achieved so far, Chris McGurk, the Chairman and CEO of Cinedigm, told RADII he’s “very bullish” on the prospects of the platform’s success.

“I think part of the reason why we’re really optimistic is that up to this point people have not watched a lot of Chinese content here in the US because of availability and other factors,” says McGurk. “That’s sort of the beauty of a lot of these different categories of Chinese content – it’s all discoverable because nobody’s watched it before.”

Cinedigm is a long-time content aggregator and distributor that already operates nine niche over-the-top channels in the US (including the comic-con-focused CONtv and an Asian pop culture-oriented channel Hallypop). In 2017, Hong Kong-based investment firm Bison Capital bought a majority stake in the company, which began talks about creating more content exchange between the US and China. This eventually led to the idea for BAMBU.

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Bill Sondheim, the President of Cinedigm Entertainment Group and Worldwide Distribution, shares McGurk’s high expectations for the new platform. Sondheim tells RADII he thinks, “BAMBU can be the beginning of a springboard to bring the American audience more in tune with the newer, more innovative content that is being produced in China already.”

Their optimism is in part based on the success of forerunners in the Asian-content streaming service industry — notably Crunchyroll, the go-to platform for anyone looking to get their anime fix. But whereas Crunchyroll focuses on a sub-genre of Japanese entertainment, BAMBU will be a platform for everything Chinese, at least at first.

“We need to create a broad enough platform of content that can test our assumptions and allow the consumer to tell us what is real,” says Sondheim. “That’s the beauty of this new technology that we live in.”

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One can get a sense of just how broad BAMBU’s spectrum of content will be by looking at what they’ve already assembled. There’s period drama (Nirvana in Fire), food documentaries (A Bite of China), classics (Journey to the West), comedy (Goodbye, Mr. Loser), action thrillers (Shockwave), along with reality TV and other genres hinted at by the two executives.

While the prospects look good, the launch of BAMBU comes at a precarious time for cross-Pacific relations. The trade war is ongoing, US politicians are restless in their efforts to stifle Chinese influence both at home through Confucius Institutes and overseas through Huawei’s 5G deployment, and really, how long would this list have to be to include every source of mutual distrust?

“Has it been awkward, timing-wise, because of some of the political issues that are going on? Certainly, that hasn’t helped our efforts,” says McGurk. “But in some ways it makes our efforts that much more important, because if we get beyond the politicians and you talk to regular Chinese and you talk to regular Americans I think there’s a great interest in each other, and a mutual respect for each other.”

In order to make BAMBU happen Cinedigm has had to foster a relationship with the Chinese government to gain access to valuable content. The relationship has been “cooperative” and “mutually beneficial”, says Sondheim. When we ask whether BAMBU will feature content that has been censored by the Chinese authorities — such as Jia Zhangke’s masterful A Touch of Sin, for example — he avoids the question.

Among others to benefit from the channel are Chinese producers. Sondheim says part of the original idea for BAMBU was to give them “direct feedback about what works and what doesn’t work and how to inform the development and production process over in China about creating content that is more exportable.”

Given these roots, and the fact that McGurk and Sondheim participated in a panel at the 2018 Beijing Film Festival on US-China Film and TV co-production, it makes sense that BAMBU is only the beginning of their efforts to pave more roads between the two countries for content and revenue flow. In addition to producing original content for BAMBU, there is also talk of co-productions with Chinese companies, and even creating a Western content-oriented streaming service within China.

bambu chinese tv streaming service chinese movies english subtitlesThey are definitely thinking big. Beyond their completed licensing deals for BAMBU, McGurk says they are currently discussing high-profile partnerships with “[China’s] largest streaming company — it’s a rival of Netflix — and also with the largest regional broadcaster that’s the next biggest player after CCTV.” (So that’s iQIYI and Shanghai Media Group then.)

When it launches, BAMBU will have both a free ad-supported version and a per month ad-free version (starting from 4.99USD) with a one month free trial. I say for everyone in the States, let’s enjoy it and hope it doesn’t die like Dramafever.

Andrew Little
    Andrew is a writer from Dallas, Texas, and currently based in Beijing as a RADII contributor. Contact him at andrew@radiichina.com.