ByteDance raised the stakes in its streaming rivalry with Tencent, with the first-ever premier of a free film on its social media platforms, which was seen more than a half-billion times during the Lunar New Year. 

ByteDance last month paid $91 million for Huanxi Media Group’s comedy “Lost in Russia,” which was played more than 600 million times in the first three days. The premier came after the coronavirus outbreak, and holiday premieres in theaters were postponed as a health precaution.

Online film streaming is a growing battlefield between ByteDance and Tencent, who are already competing in video-sharing and online gaming and may become rivals in financial services. Led by Tencent Video, three video-streaming platforms compete with traditional television programming in China, but ByteDance was the first to offer an original film with “Lost in Russia.” 

Theaters criticized the move, calling it “trampling” on China’s cinema industry, according to Chinese media. One expert cautioned against overreacting, but said technology will upend traditional film distribution.

“Technology-enabled new communication methods will only bring more and more challenges for theaters, which must improve their service and experience if they want to keep up with the change,” Hong Yin, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communications of Tsinghua University said on He predicts there will be less than 300 movies “worth watching in a theater setting” every year.

  • “Lost in Russia” is a comedy about a mother and son on a train trip to Russia, focusing on generational gaps common in many Chinese families. “Enter the Fat Dragon” was also available to watch online, but for a fee.  
  • ByteDance’s, Tik Tok and Toutiao offered 13 free films in total for the extended holiday. 
  • Huanxi’s stock price surged 43% on Lunar New Year’s Eve when the deal was announced. It fell back afterward but is still about 12% higher than a month ago.