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    Life in the Background: The Chinese Extras Who Became Viral Stars

    For years, thousands of extras lived and worked in the background of China’s biggest TV and film production base. Then short video platforms turned them into celebrities.
    Mar 27, 2024#TV & film#labor

    Our scene opens on a delivery driver, rushing to get an order in on time, accidentally sideswiping a BMW with his scooter. The rider skids to a halt and immediately begins to apologize, but the car’s driver — a man in a large gold chain and sunglasses — is unmoved. He grabs the deliveryman by the collar and demands compensation.

    Smash cut to our hero, Haobin. A middle-aged man dressed to the nines, he steps out of nowhere and offers the BMW driver 100,000 yuan ($13,900) to drop the matter. When the driver refuses, Haobin smirks and places a quick phone call to one of his contacts. The bully loses his job, and the delivery driver is saved.

    This dramatic, if not entirely logical tale is one of the tens of thousands of short skits uploaded to Chinese short video platforms over the past few years. Similar to content found on apps like ReelShort, these skits are short — usually less than five minutes — feature an exaggerated plot with multiple twists, and end on a satisfying note.

    They are also mostly shot in the same tiny corner of eastern China: Hengdian, a small town that happens to be home to the world’s largest live-action shooting base.

    More Burbank than Hollywood, the vast majority of actors in Hengdian are extras eking out a living on the margins of China’s film industry. According to one official tally, nearly 10,000 of these “Hengdian drifters” work in the town year-round.

    For years, the best these actors could hope for was to land bit parts in movies and TV shows. The rest of their time was spent as background filler. They walked through offices, congregated in ancient markets, and dodged gunfights — often for less than 100 yuan a day.

    As their name suggests, many of them sort of drifted into the industry. “I’ve been a fan of TV and film since I was a kid growing up in the countryside,” Haobin recalled to me. “After I grew up, I tried my hand as a contractor and opened a small restaurant, but it all ended in failure. I was 35, and I suddenly realized that if I didn’t take my shot then, I might never get another chance. So I came to Hengdian.”

    For a brief moment, the rise of short-video platforms like Kuaishou and Douyin — the version of TikTok available on the Chinese mainland — promised to change everything. Beginning in the late 2010s, these platforms courted independent creators, promising them traffic in exchange for a steady stream of content. Hengdian drifters, Haobin included, realized they could use their proximity to and familiarity with the film industry to reach new, previously underserved viewers in the countryside.

    Now that window appears to be closing. Over the past two years, I’ve made three fieldwork trips to Hengdian and interviewed 15 actors, creators, and other industry figures. What I’ve found suggests that platforms are pulling back from skits, while well-funded production companies are muscling the drifters out of a market they helped create.


    After graduating from middle school, Miaomiao spent a few years working as a waitress and then a factory worker before deciding to try her luck in Hengdian. “Coming to Hengdian was one of the few rebellious things I ever did,” the now 25-year-old told me. “I wasn’t thinking about becoming a star or anything — I just didn’t want my life to go on like that.”

    Miaomiao is by no means unique. Many of the extras I spoke to in Hengdian have similar stories of leaving their hometowns and old lives behind. Unlike her, however, most come with the dream of becoming performers, hoping that they’ll be spotted by a famous director and become a star one day.

    The vast majority of them are men, keen to avoid following in the footsteps of parents who’ve spent their lives working in the fields or doing low-paid jobs in the city. For them, Hengdian offers the promise of freedom and excitement, albeit with greater uncertainty.

    Xiaobai, who came to Hengdian three years ago, still recalls the excitement he felt at first: “It was like I’d walked into a video game — everything was new. The shooting was really tiring, but it was fun, and every day was fulfilling.”

    That novelty can wear off quickly. The first reality check is the low pay: Hengdian drifters exist in a complex wage hierarchy based on marketability. In ascending order, you have ordinary extras, martial artists, guest stars, and character actors. The pay is poor, especially at the bottom of the pyramid: More than 80% of extras make less than 100 yuan a day.

    These extras have a low status on set and are frequently reprimanded by the director or crew for their performances in front of the camera. Aspiring actresses have reported being sexually harassed, with unscrupulous directors promising — but not always delivering — bigger roles in exchange for sexual favors.

    Nevertheless, the lure of stardom, however remote, keeps Hengdian’s extras motivated. The ubiquitous posters of movie stars are a constant reminder that anyone could become the next Stephen Chow, Wang Baoqiang, or Zhao Liying — A-list actors who rose from obscurity.

    At times, it can feel like Hengdian drifters’ defining trait is a willingness to gamble. Like many of his peers, Xiaobai is also an avid participant in China’s lotteries, although he’s never won a prize. “You’ve got to be in it to win it, right?” he said.

    A star is born

    The fortunes of Hengdian’s acting community hit a nadir in 2020. Productions shut down, leaving thousands of actors and crewmembers out of work.

    For Haobin, who was then in his late 30s, it was a moment of reckoning. He remembers visiting one abandoned house and finding a group of migrants squatting in its vacant rooms, cooking over an open fire.

    “It was miserable to see Hengdian drifters like that,” he recalls. “I thought to myself: I can’t let that happen to me.”

    With no sign of when production would resume, and with nothing better to do, Haobin became one of a growing number of Hengdian-based actors to take up livestreaming as a way to supplement their income.

    According to a 2020 report by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), there were more than 880 million users of short video platforms in China, accounting for 87% of internet users, with short video apps accounting for 53.7% of the total time spent on mobile apps. Research on Douyin by scholars at Renmin University of China showed that from August 2019 to August 2020, 20.97 million people earned income directly from creating videos, livestream gifts, and e-commerce transactions on the platform. Pandemic-related disruptions to the TV industry merely accelerated this shift from “big screen” entertainment to phones and apps.

    At first, most Hengdian-based livestreamers relied on their proximity to the film industry to drive traffic. Xiaobai documented his daily life on set, often appearing on camera in full costume and makeup. His account, started in February 2021, gained more than 100,000 followers in its first three months, and between platform payouts and gifts from his fans, he was earning much more than the typical extra.

    There are risks to this approach, however. Sharing on-set gossip and spoilers can be lucrative, but it can also make extras a target for lawsuits. Haobin is one of a number of Hengdian-based creators who pivoted to an alternative: dramatic skits. At first, he tried his hand at humorous videos about time travel or pranks, with little success. But once he began filming stories about ordinary people from the countryside making a fortune in the big city, his account took off and he found himself gaining tens of thousands of followers a day.

    The popularity of accounts like Haobin’s and Xiaobai’s reflects the rise, not just of short video apps, but of a vast, largely untapped audience of rural and migrant Chinese. Since the late 2010s, tech companies have embraced this huge market as a way to sustain their growth. Baidu has spent billions of yuan promoting its everyman-focused Quanmin video app, since renamed Duxiaoshi. Even Douyin — which was originally targeted at middle-class users in larger cities — launched a “New Farmers Plan” in 2023 in an attempt to win viewers from the more traditionally rural-oriented app Kuaishou.

    Learning from earlier missteps — short video apps faced public backlash and official sanctions in the late 2010s after platforming exploitative or vulgar videos — companies sought to incentivize creators to make positive, uplifting content. The official account of Douyin’s creator service center, which provides materials and inspiration for video-makers, suggested in a tutorial that feel-good content has a better chance of gaining traction. Typical examples of this content include a kind man who buys meat and then gives it to an elderly homeless person he sees passing the market, or a taxi driver who drives an old person who fainted on the road to the hospital and pays for their treatment.

    However, positivity alone isn’t enough to engage audiences, a problem that many creators solve by adding an antagonist. “Stories about good guys also need a bad guy, the kind who looks down on people with a lower status or who picks on others when he gets a little power,” Haobin told me.

    When he was initially brainstorming storylines for his account, he often thought back to his own experiences, such as when he worked odd jobs and was scolded by his boss or when he was treated badly working as a film extra, and used these built-up resentments as a source of creativity.

    At first, he and his small team shot more than 30 skits a day and uploaded them to various video platforms. It was a constant process of experimentation until he worked out the most engaging formula: an impoverished person who is down on his luck, someone who abuses what little power they have for their own gratification, and — crucially — a “helper figure” who worked hard to escape poverty and is now able to punish evil and reward good.

    “After that, gaining 50,000 new followers a day became the norm,” he said.

    By 2022, his dramatic skits had helped Haobin accumulate over 10 million fans across all platforms, earning him anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 yuan a month. He used this money to hire his fellow drifters and improve his channel.

    One of those drifters was Miaomiao. The rise of the skit industry catapulted the longtime bit player to unexpected stardom. As an in-demand female lead for productions like Haobin’s, she could earn thousands of yuan for a single shoot — enough to eventually pay for a BMW, a new wardrobe, and plastic surgery.

    The sudden wealth brought by short video platforms reshaped creators’ ideas of what their careers, lives, and relationships could look like, while the old dream of becoming a movie star has gradually been replaced by viral fame. But it also brought new competition, as well-funded production companies have sought to profit off the trend toward short videos by muscling out the first generation of independent creators.

    A dramatic entrance

    In November 2023, a well-known production company released the costume drama “Black Lotus Training Manual.” The series, which centers around a story of revenge, was similar to other palace dramas found on Chinese TV and streaming platforms, but told across 120 two-minute episodes.

    It was an immediate success, earning 20 million yuan against a production budget of less than 2 million, despite eventually being removed from major platforms due to its risqué content.

    The exploding popularity of short dramas within China coincided with the rise of apps like ReelShort abroad. Short dramas have gone global, but their production is still concentrated in places like Hengdian.

    At their core, short dramas and skits like those made by Haobin are essentially the same thing: an addictive combination of short runtimes, dramatic storylines, and satisfying endings. In every other sense, however, short dramas are a step up compared to skits. They feature more attractive actors, better production values, and superior scripts and sets.

    According to iiMedia, a market research firm, the size of the domestic short drama market exceeded 37 billion yuan in 2023, equivalent to more than half China’s box office. There are hundreds of short dramas in production in Hengdian on a given day, with series going from shooting to release in little over a month.

    The shift from skits to short dramas benefitted from the support of short video platforms, which increasingly needed exclusive intellectual property. In April 2021, a collection of 73 Chinese film and TV companies, long-form video platforms, and industry associations issued a joint statement calling out widespread copyright infringement on short video platforms. Fierce competition over copyrighted resources and fears of legal action prompted Douyin, Kuaishou, and other short video platforms to accelerate the development of the short drama industry and create more original IPs.

    In theory, they might have turned to creators like Haobin to realize their vision, but while their skits were popular, they were derivative and had little potential as intellectual property. Although Hengdian has plenty of actors, there is an acute shortage of scriptwriters, and non-professional teams like Haobin’s struggled to create or buy the relatively higher quality scripts needed for short dramas — opening a door for more experienced production companies.

    Making matters worse for independent creators, major short video apps have updated their community guidelines to require skits be labeled as fictional. This change didn’t come out of nowhere — early on, skits frequently blurred the lines between fact and fiction and played on class-related anger in an attempt to reach a wider audience, especially among the elderly — but the new rules hit Hengdian’s creators hard.

    In September 2023, Douyin revealed that it had “handled” 9,000 accounts that had presented fake social news or solicited rewards and sold goods under the guise of charity. These actions have severely reduced traffic for skit creators and impacted their ability to monetize their content.

    Haobin’s account, which had several million followers, was one of those that vanished. He tried transferring his previous videos over to a new account, but the numbers of likes and comments he’s received on the new handle are a fraction of what they once were.

    Other creators chose to accept the collapse of the industry as just another dramatic twist. Many of those who accumulated millions of followers by shooting skits have now either abandoned the industry in favor of influencing or else simply sold their accounts.

    As for Miaomiao — the actress whose life was changed by the skit industry — she’s managed to make the transition to short dramas, but not as a lead. Whereas she used to get top billing in skits, now she plays less important roles such as a maid, secretary, or waitress.

    Although she’s made peace with her new circumstances, she does still miss the boom years. “Sometimes it feels like it was all a dream,” she said. “But I do kind of wish I’d taken the chance to make a bit more money.”

    To protect the identities of his research participants, the author has given them pseudonyms.

    Translator: David Ball; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header and in-text illustrations: Wang Zhenhao, edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)