A seismic shift just occurred in the world of mobile entertainment apps. A Chinese-made app called ReelShort has skyrocketed to the top 20 position on the US App Store, temporarily dethroning reigning king TikTok for the top spot. Over 11 million Americans have already downloaded this soap opera-style video app in the past 3 months.
ReelShort offers bite-sized scripted dramas tailored for middle aged women, the demographic glued to Hallmark films and daytime soaps. The production value screams direct-to-DVD, with absurd plots centered on marital affairs, family vengeance, and secret billionaires. Show titles include “Son-in-Law’s Revenge,” “I Got Married Without You,” and “The Double Life of My Billionaire Husband.”
During the pandemic, similar mobile “micro-series” apps took China by storm, filling the void of shuttered movie theaters amongst blue collar workers. ReelShort adapted many of these Chinese stories for American audiences.
The app pioneered an ingenious monetization model. Viewers can binge episodes for free alongside commercials. To unlock full seasons ad-free, users purchase virtual “coins” at around $10-20 per series.
This microtransaction strategy has proven wildly lucrative. ReelShort has already generated $22 million in its first 3 months since launching in August 2022.
The company behind ReelShort is Beijing-based COL Group. They are astutely focused on the American market after many of its shows were banned in China for being too racy. According to The Economist, Chinese censors removed “1.4 million micro-series episodes” across creators.
Like other Chinese apps that “conquered America” – Shein, TikTok, Temu – ReelShort hides its Chinese background through an American studio subsidiary branded Crazy Maple. This white-labels the app as homegrown.
The content strikes a chord by leaning into tropes from a bygone era of entertainment. Picture the 1980s primetime soap era of “Dallas” and “Dynasty” updated with modern twists about polyamorous relationships and secret offspring.
As the shows are only 2 minutes long, there is no time for subtlety. Shocking revelations and overt seductions drive each episode. This fuels an addictive quality, with viewers always left hanging on cliffhangers perpetuating the next binge.
On ReelShort’s Youtube channel, comments gush about the steamy storylines. “The chemistry they have,” Christine Joy remarks under series “The Double Life of my Billionaire Husband” with heart emojis. “Oh I watched this on Facebook,” Jolan Bongo explains. “I got hooked by it, I love the story and the cast.”
Western viewers clearly crave escapist, dramatic fare no matter the source or production value. The runaway success of ReelShort signals Chinese exporters have tapped into a profitable vein – serving up Hollywood-style entertainment to the underserved Hallmark demographic.
As one ReelShort show warns, when it comes to secret billionaires: never divorce. As for the app itself, America appears to be in a codependent relationship we won’t part from anytime soon.