Tencent’s Penguin Pictures Amps Up Documentary Mission

Tencent Penguin Pictures grew out of Tencent Video to bring content to the Chinese tech giant’s video streaming platform — one of the world’s largest by user numbers. It is distinct from Tencent Pictures, another production division, which is more closely tied to Tencent’s own IP through its online literature, comics and gaming sectors. Penguin’s documentary branch is a small team of just six people, but they’re doing big things.

Tencent Penguin Pictures Documentary Studio is involved in the acquisition of foreign content and formats, sales of its own content, production and development, and co-productions. It has historically focused on food, wildlife and nature programming, but is soon to begin shooting new documentaries about global youth culture and Chinese history. And it is looking to get into reality survival shows.

Every year, the studio purchases a few hundred hours of foreign documentary content about nature, science, lifestyle and history from international distributors for streaming on the Tencent Video platform. Notable past acquisitions include “Seven Up!” in 2016, and National Geographic’s “Cosmos” in 2015 and its “The Great Human Race.”

Tencent Video’s primary user base are viewers aged 18-29. Some 70% of its viewers watch via mobile, meaning they’re often watching in shorter, more disjointed spurts. The platform is uniquely positioned in China thanks to its ties to the broader Tencent ecosystem, an enormous tech medusa that includes WeChat, the country’s most ubiquitous social media app, social media platform QQ, news platform Tencent News, Tencent Music and Tencent Games, the largest gaming company in the world by revenue.

These ties allow it to leverage the company’s existing news and social media channels to promote video content, generating enormous interactivity and allowing content teams to quickly get audience feedback that they can use to tailor their offerings.

Tencent teams also work across departments. For instance, the Penguin documentary team works with Tencent Games to promote its shows either by inserting promotional content into existing popular games or creating original games tied to certain IP. For example, a restaurant game branded “Once Upon a Bite” has players serving up dishes featured on the show.

The Penguin documentary studio is led by deputy director Lex Zhu, who is in charge of Tencent Video’s documentary content management and international cooperation. Zhu shifted to the new media space from China’s straight-laced state broadcaster CCTV, where he led the program management team of its documentary channel, notably acting as producer for the hit food series “A Bite of China I & II.” Zhu is set as a keynote speaker Monday at FilMart, discussing why documentaries matter.

He explained the move by saying: “We wanted to make some changes and try some new experiments by switching from traditional to new media, whether that was in methods of producing, distributing, promoting or financing content.”

The studio he leads is now best-known for the documentary franchise “Once Upon a Bite,” an eight-part series that debuted at the end of last year and has since racked up some 1 billion views. It is showing outside China on Hong Kong’s TVB, Malaysia’s Astro and Chinese-language stations in the U.S. and Canada, among other countries.

A property within the franchise called “Flavorful Origins” debuted in February over the Chinese new year, and was acquired exclusively by Netflix, where it began airing in 200 other countries just after the holiday. The show was created by the same production team behind the first two seasons of “A Bite of China,” though not the third.

Penguin is discussing a deeper collaboration with Netflix on season two of “Once Upon a Bite” and season three of “Flavorful Origins.” The latter’s second season is set to stream in August.

“Our user base is continually expanding, and we need to make even more quality documentaries in order to satisfy their needs,” he said. “There are many international documentaries, but some parts of them aren’t very well aligned with Chinese culture. I think there is a cultural barrier there, and so the number of documentaries that are suitable for Chinese audiences is still not quite enough compared to our need.” Zhu told reporters at the end of last year that Tencent Video has some 70 million subscribers.

Localization of foreign content is key, as one of the big challenges his team is currently facing is titles that get lost in the shuffle and languish with insufficient views to be profitable. Even top-quality Western content, particularly about social issues, often found few viewers, as the number of people interested in global documentaries for their own sake “is still too small, so from a commercial perspective, it’s a losing business.”

His team has found it works best to add content related to China, or to import successful formats that can be reshot and localized in the mainland. “Some [foreign] content stills seems quite far away from us Chinese people, whether it’s the storytelling method or the subject matter discussed. It’s the same in the U.S., I’m sure, where many people aren’t so interested in seeing Chinese content,” he said.

Tencent Video has been involved as an investor and producer on a number of notable international TV co-productions. It has had a strategic partnership with BBC since 2016, when the two collaborated on “Planet Earth II.” In 2017, they worked together on “Blue Planet II” and last year on “Dynasties.” Upcoming collaborations include “The Planets,” a science program about the planets of our solar system set to stream in April at the same time in China as it does abroad, and the natural history program “Seven Worlds,” scheduled to stream at the end of the year.

In April, Tencent will stream National Geographic’s new wildlife program “Hostile Planet,” for which it was an investor.

Tencent has collaborated with Japanese broadcaster NHK on the first season of “72 Hours China,” 13 25-minute episodes made from 72 hours of footage captured of ordinary people encountered by chance in 13 different Chinese cities, and is discussing further work together on season two. It has also worked with ITV on the animal documentary series “The Cute Ones.”

The studio is involved in a number of local projects, including a food documentary series called “Xiaoye Jianghu,” about various midnight snacks, and “Celebration,” about Chinese festivals. The latter is funded by Tencent and Chinese investment bank CICC, but will be shot in China by Singapore’s Beach House Pictures.

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