Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists betting the public will pay for imagination
Science fiction is not just an art form or a genre of literature. It's a business, too. Chinese companies and localities are making big investments because they believe there is a huge and growing demand for stories that spark the imagination.
Growth of the mobile internet in China is seen as key. People want to watch short science fiction videos on their phones. Plus, many games are based on science fiction stories. The market for virtual reality alone is expected to reach 55 billion yuan (.3 billion; 7.1 billion euros; ￡6.2 billion) by 2020, according to Bloomberg. The Motion Picture Association of America estimates that China will surpass the United States as the world's largest movie market this year.
"China boasts abundant sci-fi intellectual property works to develop derivative products like internet drama, TV series, films and games," Jiang Lin, internet director of Science Fiction World magazine, told National Business Daily. "I hope the China Science Fiction City can cultivate fertile soil for these products to take root and grow."
Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists see vast potential.
For example, Future Affairs Administration, a startup company in Beijing that was launched in 2016, has already raised 10 million yuan of angel investment. During the A round of financing, FAA raised dozens of millions of yuan in total, and it established Three Body Cosmos, a subcompany that focuses on developing stories related to Liu Cixin's Three Body trilogy.
"At the beginning, we got a percentage from selling stories," says Ji Shaoting, founder and CEO of FAA, explaining the company's business model. "But that is like crushing the aspirations of the poor writers. They are not making a lot. Later on, I found out that it's better if we get the good stories and also participate in the movie part. We can get percentages of the movie project or the TV series, so we can be kinder to our writers. We want to help our writers, to protect them. I want to help them to get more money. Then they can have time to write more stories.
"We also hire people who can help to make movies. We don't make movies - just give them advice and ideas. The other part of the team is editors, because we have to talk to writers. Our company is very new. Last year, we talked to writers more than movie makers because we have to grow up the bank of our IP. We talked to foreign writers, Chinese writers, new writers, people who want to be writers. So we build up an education system of Chinese writers."
Additionally, Ji says, "We are kind of an agent in a way. It is a little bit complicated, but that's how things work in China. Because in the past decades, there was no Chinese science fiction industry, only words. If we want to make it an industry, we have to do many things in the whole industrial chain. In America, you have thousands of science fiction writers who have been published, but in China there are fewer than 100 Chinese science fiction writers, and the fans only know the names of 20. So we really need more science fiction writers. I believe there is a very big market. Many of the science fiction movies from America made a lot of money in China."
Feng Huawei, who is founder of Smallville Capital, a leading Chinese investment company, as well as a major investor in FAA, says: "I would define this project as part of the 'Imagination Industry', which is becoming more and more important. The development of technology that includes mobile information provides us with access to more devices that serve our needs, as well as spreading ideas. Imagination as the source of content production, diversity and innovation, is of more value now.
"We are looking for the combination of high-quality science fiction works with other industries, such as movies, animation, education, travel, real estate and other cultural business. We also wish to have more people involved in the production and innovation of high-quality science fiction content through supporting development."
For 10 years, Ji was a reporter for Xinhua News Agency, where famous science fiction writer and Xinhua executive Han Song became a mentor. She says she cried when she left Xinhua, but science fiction is her passion.
"I started reading science fiction when I was 9 years old. Through high school and college, there were not a lot of people who were interested in sci-fi, so I was really lonely." However, in 2007, she attended a science fiction conference in Chengdu. "I felt that I was not lonely anymore. I felt that I had found the family of science fiction."