Before it reached cinema screens in 1997 Titanic generated most of its headlines because its director James Cameron had blown through an already enormous budget by $100 million.
In Cameron’s case there was a happy ending: the film was a huge hit and a massive financial success.
But another over-budget project in China hasn’t worked out anywhere near as well.
Last week Youku, the Alibaba-backed online streaming platform, announced that it had pulled the plug on the new drama Route, featuring Hong Kong actor Kevin Cheng, Taiwanese heartthrob Ming Dao and mainland starlet Yu Silu.
The news came only a month after the series went into production, with the media claiming that the 14-episode project had exhausted Rmb64 million ($14 million) – all the funds that Youku invested – after filming just seven instalments.
There were also reports that crew members sent to Thailand to film scenes for the series were stranded there with their salaries unpaid.
Asked about the halt, Youku blamed Zhejiang In Power, the studio producing the drama.
In an internal memo that has since been leaked to the press, Youku claimed it fulfilled its financial obligations to the undertaking, but that the cost overruns were “extremely rare in the industry and almost hard-to-believe” so it had decided to shut filming down.
At first glance, it is puzzling why production could have gone so wrong. Producer Yuan Yumei is one of the creators of last year’s web series hit Day and Night. And even though director Lawrence Lau, a veteran filmmaker, hasn’t directed a television series before, he made the classic crime drama Lee Rock and many other action films.
According to National Business Daily, the production spent more than Rmb64 million in a single month.
In the leaked memo Youku said Zhejiang In Power’s scheduling was poor and that it had put together a budget “filled with mistakes”.
It also alleged that the studio had done nothing but “try to scam more money” from Youku, the drama’s investor.
The overspend was pretty big by Chinese standards. Costs per episode were about Rmb9 million, compared Rmb2.5 million for Day and Night, says Tencent Entertainment, a portal.
Industry observers told National Business Daily that going 5-10% over-budget is usually acceptable, but that anything beyond is “really serious”.
“While they claim that they have filmed about seven episode worth of materials, after editing, it may be even less than that,” another insider told the same newspaper. “In this situation, production seems severely over-budget.”
Others wondered why Youku didn’t do more to protect its investment, noting it didn’t even have anyone on set to monitor the spending. “It is both the right and the responsibility of the investor to track the money it invested. In fact, more seasoned investors will put an accounting or an executive producer on set to understand the shooting progress and follow up with budget execution,” another insider commented.
Last year, the production process for a TV series that starred actor Liu Yiwei also came to an abrupt halt only a fortnight after filming started. The crew complained they were already owed Rmb9 million of wages and expenses.
“I think every year the number of productions that have to be either aborted midway or go over-budget is about 50%,” reckons Yu Fang, deputy general manager of Yingying Cultural Industry Investment.
One reason for poor performance: a shortage of seasoned line producers, who are supposed to make sure that projects are delivered on time and on budget.
The China Film Producers Association calculates there are around 350 domestic film and television production companies that have released new projects over three consecutive years. But of that number, only about 20 to 30 studios are established and experienced outfits. In fact, TMT Post, a portal, believes that only a handful of industry executives have enough production experience to steer their projects to the same professional standards seen in other markets.
So what’s going to happen to the half-abandoned series Route? Alternative investors might salvage some value by injecting more cash. But if there are no takers, Youku will have to write off the entire investment. Meanwhile the media will continue to probe why the spending got so out of control. Maybe someone could even make a drama about it…
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