Money for nothing

Audiences debate the sky-high wages of TV actors


Angelababy: gave birth to a baby boy this week

In Hollywood, good looks don’t always work to one’s advantage. Take the genetically blessed Charlize Theron. In an interview with British GQ, she lamented that being beautiful was an unwelcome distraction. “How many [great] roles are out there for gorgeous gown-wearing eight-foot models?” the Oscar-winning actress asked. “When meaty roles come through, I’ve been in the room and the pretty people get turned away first.”

In China, being beautiful has worked out well in more ways than one for Angelababy. The actress, whose real name is Yang Ying, has traded heavily on physical attributes. So much so that when she first starred in a historical drama in 2015, fans overlooked her poor acting and admitted on weibo they’d tuned in because of her looks (see WiC298).

Still, the starlet didn’t want to disappoint. Taking the criticism to heart, she prepared diligently for her role in the new TV series General and I – another historical drama –by taking the script everywhere she went. She also told Tencent Entertainment, a news portal, that she hired an acting coach to get her into the mindset of the brilliant military whiz from the Warring States Period (the years between 475 and 221 BC).

“Some of the criticisms [about my acting] were acceptable. After all, I didn’t come from an acting background. But this is no excuse. I want to improve my acting,” she proclaimed.

The period drama, which is based on a wildly popular novel of the same name by Feng Nong, tells the story of a young girl (played by Yang) from the State of Yan, who falls in love with an undefeated general (Wallace Chung) from the rival State of Jin. Their relationship doesn’t run smooth – rather unfortunately they find that they must kill the other on the battlefield.

Before the show debuted at the beginning of this month, General and I had been embroiled in various controversies. For a start, it was reported that Yang and Chung both received salaries of over Rmb120 million ($20 million) for their roles in the show. That meant for the 62-episode series, they were making about Rmb2 million an episode, a huge sum even by Hollywood standards. (For perspective, Kevin Spacey, one of the highest paid actors on television, made $6.5 million a season for his work on House of Cards.)

However, the exploding salaries seems to have meant that the overall production budget shrank as a result. The majority of the scenes were computer-generated instead of being shot on location, in a move that irked some viewers. And audiences also picked apart the special effects, complaining that they were shoddily done. “The computer generated images were so fake and the lighting was all weird. It was obvious that the two leads shot the scenes against the green screens and then were digitally added back to the frame,” one netizen pointed out. “In one scene it is raining in the background but the characters aren’t even wet. The producers must think we are stupid,” another thundered.

Audiences were also surprised when news leaked that Yang and Chung had used stunt doubles in most of the battle scenes. In fact, insiders on set revealed that the two leads spent no more than 10 days in filming. The scenes in which their faces weren’t shown were all shot with body doubles (in Yang’s case her pregnancy was a factor – she gave birth to a son this week).

“Given the astronomical pay cheques, I’d expect they work a little harder,” one unsympathetic viewer wrote on Douban, a television and movie review site.

“Where is their work ethic? In the future the producers should simply use Angelababy’s picture to make an entire show without her,” another mocked.

While this is not the first row over the surging pay for some of China’s entertainment stars, the problems with General and I suggest that high salaries for the leading performers may be impacting on the rest of the production. One industry insider reveals that it is not uncommon for the cast to command as much as 70% of a production budget.

Several factors have spurred the mega-pay. First, the competition between television networks has worsened. To grab advertising dollars, networks are under enormous pressure to invest in shows that will appeal to mass audiences. This means a battle to snag the most coveted stars, whatever the cost. Indeed aside from drawing large viewerships, there are other economic reasons to hire the biggest names in television. “Commercially, these celebrities not only pull in audiences, they also attract advertisers, product placements, endorsements and other commercial tie-ups. So for producers and distributors, the gains of having an A-list celebrity on the cast are hugely significant,” one observer told Chief Entertainment Officer, an industry blog.

How things change. China’s most affectionately remembered TV drama is probably The Dream of the Red Chamber, a 36- episode production from state television that first came out in 1987 and was so popular that it has been rerun more than 700 times since. But as we pointed out in WiC293, while the cast of the series may have gained nationwide plaudits, they were not exactly enriched by their efforts. The male lead, for example, was paid Rmb60 per episode.

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