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Streaming App “Smart Cinema USA” Brings the Chinese Box Office to Your Phone

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It’s common to see people in any Chinese city watching TV series, variety shows, and movies on their smartphones while riding on the subway, high-speed rail commutes, or any other pocket of their increasingly fragmented schedule. Although Netflix already has over 150 million users, and Disney has just joined the streaming game with its Disney+ service, watching film, TV and video content on smartphones is still a relatively niche market in the US.

A new app, Smart Cinema USA, is taking aim at this market, with a focus on curating Chinese content to Americans’ mobile devices.

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The app launched a Chinese version in May 2018. Within a year, more than 250 films were released on it, and had been watched over 2 million times, generating 50 million RMB (7.185 million USD) in online box office receipts.

Last July, an international version of the app developed by Smart Cinema USA Inc. held a soft launch in the US and South Korea, hoping to give access to the app’s film library to an overseas Chinese audience looking to watch the latest films that were hitting theaters in China.

Smart Cinema CEO Dr. Gao Qunyao also seems to have a larger ambition in mind. After holding previous jobs as CEO of Microsoft China, Vice President of Wanda Culture in charge of AMC (the Chinese conglomerate owned a majority share in the American theater chain from 2012-2018), and CEO of Legendary Pictures, Dr. Gao co-founded Smart Cinema in 2017. His experience in Hollywood led him to the conclusion that despite the audience’s potential taste for and interest in certain films, it is difficult for Chinese movies to receive wide distribution through the traditional Hollywood system — that is, to receive wide theatrical distribution in the US.

A Chinese action flick from Die Hard 2 director Renny Harlin on the Smart Cinema USA app

On the Smart Cinema USA app, users pay a “ticket price” similar to actual box office prices in China, allowing them to view the movie via blockchain and cloud services, sometimes with a director’s commentary track or narration from film industry professionals. Selected in collaboration with Well Go USA — the largest Asian film distributor in the US — the films featured in Smart Cinema USA are tailored with an American audience’s tastes in mind.

At this writing, recent popular titles such as On the Balcony, Wrath Of Silence, Dying To Survive, Looking Up, and PRC 70th anniversary omnibus My People, My Country have been screened on Smart Cinema, with more Chinese blockbusters scheduled to be released on the mobile theater in the near future.

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How the overseas market will react — and how many moviegoers will settle for viewing on the small screen instead of opting for the theatrical experience — still remains to be seen. For now, a built-in audience of tens of thousands of overseas Chinese seems to comprise a solid base of early adopters.

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van