"If people like me wanted to make a movie 10 years ago, we had to get approval from government agencies and officials first," said director and actor Xiao Yang. "But now, with the Internet, we can show our works to an audience directly and we get feedback from the audience directly. When my work gains a large number of viewers, it starts to influence investors."
Xiao's microfilm "Old Boys" kick-started the Chinese microfilm phenomenon — films around 40 minutes or less that are distributed online and generally viewed on mobile phones or laptops. They have become intensely popular with people born in the 1980s or later. Today, microfilm producers face fierce competition for sponsorship and advertising, so many try to cater for mass viewing and employ comedy elements and sexual themes.
The original film is a story with comedic elements of a wedding host and a barber who reminisce about their school-day dreams of making it big in music. They decide to team up for a talent show, performing Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," but their hopes are dashed by the producer, who doesn't want them in the competition.
The school-day nostalgia and the pair's sadness at losing out on their childhood dreams struck a chord with the viewing public when the film was released online in 2010. Its main song became a karaoke favorite.
The movie starts where the microfilm left off, with the duo — played by the same actors, director Xiao and Wang Taili, who wrote three of the movie's songs — heading to New York to seek fame. The trailer shows the pair doing kung fu moves at John F. Kennedy airport while being chased by two North Korean assassins, who the two also play.
The microfilm came about after the pair, known as the Chopsticks Brothers, posted their own music videos online and garnered attention. They were later sponsored to make "Old Boys" by the popular video website Youku and the state-run China Film Group as part of a project to showcase promising young microfilm makers.
The overwhelming popularity of online viewing is redefining how China's mainstream industry markets itself and chooses themes. Xiao said that after his microfilm became popular online, investors approached him.
"What is popular online is a good indication of what will be popular with young people," said Shao Dan, Youku Tudou's director of international communications.
"So Young," one of 2013's biggest Chinese box office winners, started life as a Web novel about a young woman's journey into adulthood that gained lots of fans online.
The 2011 movie "Love Is Not Blind," about a young woman's heartbreak, was low-budget, but it concentrated its marketing online, including videos of people tearfully relating their own tales of being lovelorn. It came out in time for China's Singles Day, reaping box office revenue that was many times its investment.
Film critic Raymond Zhou said traditional films were increasingly relying on microfilms for promotion, putting short documentaries about the making of the feature film online to attract attention ahead of the release date.
Zhou said he didn't expect "Old Boys" to work so well as a feature film. "I really doubt it, because there's a time for everything," he said.
When "Old Boys" the microfilm premiered in 2010, "it really clicked with the online public, (but) things change so fast. Whatever is popular right now will be totally forgotten in say half a year," Zhou said.