These days in China you can book a dental appointment, hail a taxi or borrow a shared bike via internet giant Tencent. Through Alibaba, you can buy Macy’s merchandise, Armani beauty products and, by year’s end, Ford cars from vending machines.
China’s two tech leaders have brilliantly converted their strengths — in e-commerce for Alibaba, in games and social media for Tencent — into innovative ecosystems that cater to most aspects of everyday life. In much of the Middle Kingdom, cash has disappeared, replaced by Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Wallet.
Now, with entertainment considered a core business by both companies, the behemoths are going head to head in sectors such as video streaming, online ticket selling and film investing. They’re taking their strategies and competition global, with a speed and gargantuan ambition that beg comparisons with Google and Amazon. For Hollywood, Alibaba and Tencent have become the standout Chinese business partners, pulling ahead of retreating heavyweight Dalian Wanda and others such as Fosun or LeEco.
Alibaba Group CEO Daniel Zhang says his company’s plunge into entertainment is motivated by long- and short-term considerations. In the long run, digital entertainment and media are growth businesses. In the near term, entertainment content and platforms make Alibaba’s e-commerce business stickier.
“People need more digital content on top of physical products. We want to give people more choice,” Zhang told investors recently. At the same time, “we see very strong synergy between the retail platform and the digital entertainment platform.”
Tencent, which for several years was ranked as the world’s largest games distributor, has become one of the 10 most valuable companies on the planet by adding mind-boggling amounts of functionality to its WeChat (aka Weixin) and QQ messaging apps. Building out its media component — film, TV, music, video, online book publishing — means that WeChat and QQ’s billion-plus users never need to leave Tencent’s virtual universe.
“After fierce competition for online traffic, and then for exclusive content, we are now entering a third phase of competition,” says Tencent VP Sun Zhonghuai. “Platforms with strength in both quantity and quality content will be the most popular.”
Alibaba and Tencent are duking it out for customers in a booming Chinese market that boasts 140 million paying streaming-video subscribers — almost double the number in 2016 — spread among Tencent Video, Alibaba’s Youku and Baidu’s recently listed iQiyi. That exceeds Netflix’s worldwide total of 125 million subscribers. By many measures, such as average viewing time and advertising revenue, streaming has supplanted traditional and cable TV in China. Last year, 14 of the top 20 dramas were online titles.
The race is now on for original content, with Alibaba and Tencent increasingly producing and spending like Netflix or Amazon. “Instead of sustaining large budgets to purchase licensed content, platforms are investing in original series as a more cost-effective way to create unique content with controllable costs,” says Marcus Yang, an investment analyst at Macquarie.
Research group Media Partners Asia estimates that Tencent Video’s content bill in 2017 was $2 billion, while Alibaba’s Youku spent $1.1 billion for programming. That includes ongoing output deals with Hollywood, such as Youku’s licensing of films from NBCUniversal and Sony Pictures Television, and Alibaba’s recent purchase of 1,000 episodes of Disney animated series.
While those deals will likely continue, the emphasis on creating original content means Hollywood may recede in importance. “Although Tencent and Alibaba do not have deep roots in the entertainment business … they have already successfully nurtured internal production teams and incubated a rich library of IP,” says Vivek Couto, Media Partners Asia’s executive director. “Both platforms are also leveraging user data and AI technology to create more premium content and to enhance the diversity of their content spectrum.”
Their deep pockets have enabled the tech rivals to build up their media empires with remarkable speed. By some counts, Tencent has invested in 51 entertainment companies, especially early-stage animation firms, while Alibaba has invested in 48 entertainment firms along the length of the supply chain.
Akin to a Hollywood studio with labels operating at different scales, Tencent has developed two production arms: Tencent Pictures, which last year unveiled a production slate of more than 40 film and TV titles, and Penguin Pictures, which is more closely allied to Tencent Video. It also uses digital publisher Tencent Literature and Tencent Animation & Comics as content sources.
Tencent’s overseas investments include minority positions in Tang Media Partners (owner of Global Road Entertainment); a small stake in David Ellison’s Skydance Media, which manages the “Mission: Impossible” and “Star Trek” franchises; and a position in STX Entertainment.
Alibaba’s investments include leading online ticket business Tao Piao Piao, film financier Hehe Pictures, producer-distributors Bona Film, Huayi Brothers and Enlight Media and exhibition chain Dadi Cinema. In the U.S., it has a stake of undisclosed size in Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners.
“We see very strong synergy between the retail platform and the digital entertainment platform.”
Alibaba Group CEO Daniel Zhang
Alibaba’s pipeline is smaller than Tencent’s. Alibaba Pictures scaled back its producing ambitions in 2017, making only 10 drama originals for TV and repositioning itself as a service provider, marketing partner and distribution platform. It touts the performance in China of Amblin titles “A Dog’s Purpose” and “Ready Player One” as proof of
Alibaba and Tencent are of such scale that neither breaks out the full financial performance of its media activities. But both companies’ media units appear to be loss-making. In mid-April, Alibaba Pictures warned investors that it would lose up to $270 million in the 15 months to March, largely through the costs of building market share at Tao Piao Piao. Tencent appears to be pursuing a Disney-like model, adapting IP into multiple forms — video, games, movies, music, merchandise — and probably aiming at profitability in three to four years. For Alibaba, the business model for its entertainment operations is an Amazon-like process of deferred profits and continual reinvestment.
The companies have so far managed to avoid building up large amounts of debt, helping them to stay in the good graces of the Communist government, unlike Wanda. Indeed, both firms were called in by the government recently to help shore up Wanda: Alibaba bought a $744 million stake in Wanda Film Holdings, and Tencent is leading a group of investors in buying a $5.3 billion share of Wanda Commercial Properties.
Already conquerors at home, the online giants have now begun looking beyond China, apparently with official blessing. Few observers expect Alibaba or Tencent to directly challenge the FAANG companies in North America or Western Europe. Rather, the battle is most likely to be engaged in developing markets such as India, Latin America, Russia and Eastern Europe.
“A first wave of [Chinese] companies going abroad will offer tools such as mobile apps and other features for managing mobile devices, and mobile games that do not require much local tailoring,” says Ke Wei, a partner with China Renaissance’s Huaxing Growth Capital private equity fund. “Succeeding waves will focus on aggregating and developing ecosystems for locally produced content,” such as news, music, video and other entertainment.
In India, Tencent and Ali-baba are jockeying for position in a market that resembles China 15 years ago. Amazon and Netflix are already on the ground, taking advantage of newly ubiquitous broadband internet. Alibaba last year bought Indian ticketing start-up TicketNew and owns a majority of Paytm’s e-commerce wing.
Rumors are swirling around which streaming services in Southeast Asia might get snapped up by Alibaba or Tencent, and whether Alibaba and Paytm will launch their own video platform in India.
Mark Britt, CEO of iFlix, which positions itself as the pioneer of streaming video in Southeast Asia, Africa and other developing economies, has no doubt that Tencent and Alibaba will make a play on the subcontinent. Nor does he think the mammoth rivals will stop there.
“My corporate view,” Britt says, “is that the Chinese services will end up dominating the global media landscape.”