The hot new trend in entertainment is trashy, (very) short-form soap operas on TikTok. It’s a weird business that has proven lucrative for the Chinese-owned ReelShort.
The app specializes in junky romance, revenge, and werewolf stories targeting young women — and their smartphones. It’s working: ReelShort in November actually surpassed TikTok on the Apple Store’s download charts, and its creator says the app is already profitable. The copycats are coming.
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ReelShort was developed by the Crazy Maple Studio, which is Beijing-backed and California-based. And its reel momentum has resulted in some very reel profiles in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. You can’t get very far into any article on ReelShort without a mention of the word “Quibi,” the short-lived, short-form app from DreamWorks founder Jeffrey Katzenberg that launched — and died — in 2020. Katzenberg blamed COVID for its swift demise.
The cautionary tale is now history, and ReelShort is learning from Quibi’s mistakes. (Beyond launching amid a global pandemic.) From launching in August 2022 until December, ReelShort made $22 million in revenue.
Revenue is well and good, but it only turns into profit by keeping costs down. ReelShort’s content is made on the (dirt) cheap, with series produced for $300,000 or less. Where Quibi targeted A-list talent, ReelShort is hiring total unknowns.
Budgets and production values may climb as ReelShort’s volume grows, but not by much, because the types of series ReelShort wants you to binge are not designed to be of high quality. They’re predictable, familiar-yet-bonkers stories designed to hook you with titles like “The Double Life of My Billionaire Husband” and vampire story “Love Me, Bite Me.” We all know what we’re getting here. (ReelShort only has a couple dozen series available to stream, but hopes to increase its output to 75-100 new shorts in 2024.)
Whatever. So long as women 18-45, their target demo, spend their very real money on very fake currency, ReelShort is good with the Quibi quips.
Unlike Quibi, ReelShort is not a subscription service. Quibi cost between $4.99-$7.99/month. ReelShort users can stream about half-a-dozen 60-90 seconds-long episodes of a series for free. Once a user is hooked on a ReelShort, they must pay or watch ads to unlock the remaining 40-50 episode chunks, unlocking and paying for each clip you want to watch individually. At least one commenter on Reddit complained the app does a poor job of holding your place, so you might end up being charged to unlock and view a clip you’ve already seen.
To (purposely) muddy the waters even more, users must purchase in-app batch currency called Coins; in turn, you use Coins to unlock additional episodes. A series can run $10-$20 worth of Coins to watch in full.
That conversion might sound familiar for anyone who has played Candy Crush Saga or countless other free-to-play (F2P) mobile games, which tend to offer in-game currency (like Candy Crush’s Gold Bars) to attain boosters or power-ups, or in the case of some games, to advance to future levels and just keep playing. You can buy in bulk or a few bucks at a time — it adds up. Candy Crush has crushed it from ads and those microtransactions; in September, the game’s developer King announced it reached $20 billion in revenue since launching in 2012.
It is too early to say if ReelShort is here for the long haul; the app has already lapped Quibi. The New York Times reports ReelShort was downloaded 24 million times in the final quarter of 2023; seven million of those from the U.S., its largest market. Quibi was downloaded 10 million times globally before it shuttered in a span of six months.
Regardless, ReelShort is far from a Netflix or YouTube killer. But the trend of watching short-form content on TikTok (or elsewhere) is part of our streaming future — Hollywood can either be in on it, or out. Analyst blog MIDiA argued YouTube could benefit from licensing other Hollywood shows to be viewable through Shorts — YouTube’s answer to TikTok and to Instagram’s Reels — and actually cash in on how people have illegally been consuming some series for a long time.
Paramount recently got in on the bite-sized fun when it briefly released the original 2004 “Mean Girls” onto TikTok in its entirety. The idea was to get a new generation of teens excited for the new “Mean Girls” movie that opened this month. Paramount’s TikTok channel grew to 582 million followers since the stunt, and the new movie-musical has grossed a hefty $83.4 million worldwide.
Even “The Sopranos” has taken to TikTok, with HBO putting 25-second recaps of entire episodes on the platform. It’s essentially a marketing play for Max. It also, in a small way, legitimizes short form on your phone. After all, if the format is good enough for one of the most critically-acclaimed series of all time, it’s plenty good for a vampire soap-opera.
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