Caixin
Apr 08, 2021 08:10 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

In Depth: China’s Film Industry Suffers Brain Drain as Game Developers Poach Talent

While the film and TV industry were suffering during the pandemic, video game developers were thriving. Photo: VCG
While the film and TV industry were suffering during the pandemic, video game developers were thriving. Photo: VCG

More VFX is doing well for itself. The visual effects company appeared in the credits for four of the seven movies released over the Lunar New Year holiday, the busiest period for China’s box office.

Previously, it won acclaim for its participation in epic blockbuster “The Wandering Earth,” adapted from a novella by China’s most well-known sci-fi author Liu Cixin.

However, More VFX founder Xu Jian wrote online that he was considering a career change. Over the last year and a half, he said that he lost an employee a week because, as he wrote, “the video game industry is tapping talent at a crushing rate, and the film visual effects industry might face an awkward situation where there isn’t anyone working over the next year.”

Even though he decided to raise the company’s fees by 70-80% this year, he thinks the additional cash will only allow him to keep “a small fraction of qualified talent,” he wrote.

Animation firms are also afflicted by this brain drain to the video game sector. Wang Yunfei, the director of the “Journey to the West”-inspired animation flick “Monkey King Reborn,” which is scheduled for release this year, told Caixin that of the 1,000 people who have worked on the movie over the last five years “less than half of them are left in the industry.”

Over Wang’s 20 year career, he remembers that there were three major waves where video game companies engulfed talent from the film and television industry. These waves came as the industry rolled out ambitious expansion plans, and the most recent wave is the strongest, he said.

The driver

Wang said he often pictures animators as warriors struggling to fight a battle while video game developers enjoy a feast. “The movie is not finished, but others are trying to lure (talents) away with a salary three times as big. How can I stop them from leaving?”

Digital imagery has a high technological skill barrier, but industry professionals mostly don’t think it’s a lucrative career path. Top productions such as “The Wandering Earth” are few and far between. Not to mention most Chinese movies spend big on cast, and little is left over for visual effects.

Besides, being the visual director of 2019 Chinese animated smash “Nezha,” Liu Zheng has worked on Hollywood movies such as “Pacific Rim” and two “Captain America” sequels. Liu, who founded visual effects company RedHare FX, said that most of the brains being drained away are junior artists. However, even veterans can be lured away by thick pay packets and the chance for better career development.

“There are only 400 to 500 senior talents in China’s film, TV, and animation, [and] 95% of them have been lured away by video games,” Xu of More VFX said, adding that the majority of talents in their 30s have also been lured away.

Covid-19 has heightened the pay discrepancy. Film and TV production has been heavily impacted by measures to control the virus’ spread. But as people cooped up at home turned to the internet for an escape, video games have seen a boom — accompanied by a hiring binge.

Xu Douding, the founder of video-game focused recruitment firm Lieyou, said that concept designers could have usually expected their salary to rise 10% for every year they’re in the industry. But over the last year, this has risen to as much as 30%. TapTap, developer FunPlus and internet giant ByteDance are among the most generous employers.

According to recruitment site Zhaopin.com, the online video game segment has average salaries second only to the financial sector.

Liu of RedHare FX is worried that in the next few years, viewers will realize that quality levels are falling in the film and TV sector. “There are only so many artists in the industry, many of them are working on several projects at a time,” he said. “These days, as there are even more projects in film and TV kicking off and starting to hire talent, the shortage is only going to get more severe.”

That talent drought may take a while to show up, because animation and sci-fi movies usually take years to make. “Nezha” took five. That’s partly due to the fact there are so many stakeholders, even in smaller-budget animated films, which can also lead to uneven production quality.

The pusher

While the film and TV industry were suffering during the pandemic, video game developers were thriving. Given the difficulty of publishing lots of new games under the country’s regulatory environment, major players are focusing on releasing the highest quality products possible to compete with their rivals.

One area of particular growth is the mobile gaming sector, which is seeing international expansion. In 2020, 27 Chinese mobile game developers had more than $100 million of annual revenue, according to a report from data provider Sensor Tower. The top 30 mobile games had combined revenue of $9.24 billion last year, up 47%.

Among the top 30, newcomers have become increasingly prominent, even overtaking some of their major-studio competitors like Tencent and NetEase. In October 2020, action role-playing game “Genshin Impact,” by Shanghai-based studio miHoYo, broke the record for a Chinese mobile game’s monthly overseas revenue, with $160 million.

Hot money from the capital market also follows. Streaming platform Bilibili, which makes much of its revenue from video-game related videos, has seen the price of its Nasdaq-listed stock rise fourfold since the start of 2020. The TapTap online video game community has seen its Hong Kong market valuation rise around 900% since the end of 2019.

Contact editor Joshua Dummer (joshuadummer@caixin.com)

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