An epic fail

A bad week for Alibaba as two of its entertainment projects are axed


Zhang Yishang: starred in Asura, the Alibaba-backed film flop

Originally billed as “a triumph that the entire world will adore for years to come”, Asura was supposed to be the smash hit of the summer. But it is more likely to go down in history as one of the biggest flops in Chinese cinema, after the $110 million blockbuster disappeared from theatres almost overnight.

Backed by heavyweights includding Alibaba Pictures, the e-commerce giant’s filmmaking unit, Asura, was a fantasy epic based on Buddhist mythology. The cast included teenage heartthrob Wu Lei, as the hero – a young boy who embarks on an epic journey to save the heavenly realm. Hong Kong actors Tony Leung and Carina Lau lent their star power and played mythical demigods.

Asura touted itself as a Chinese hybrid of The Lord of the Rings and HBO’s Game of Thrones. It made little effort to disguise its inspiration: the lead actress, played by Zhang Yishang, was styled almost identically to that of Daenerys Targaryen from the popular TV show. It was also destined to grab headlines as the most expensive film ever made in China, costing Rmb750 million ($110 million) and taking six years to finish. The producers tapped Hollywood veteran Charlie Iturriaga – who previously ran production for Deadpool – to head up the special effects. And they spared no expense on the costumes, hiring Oscar-winning designer Ngila Dickson.

Despite the impressive roster of talent and the oversized budget, Asura took just Rmb49 million in the first three days of release before being withdrawn from cinemas by its own studio.

“The film took six years to make and lasted only three days at the box office,” a netizen joked.

Industry observers believe that the blockbuster was hoping to rake in more than Rmb2.5 billion. In the event, it lost about Rmb680 million.

Most of those who saw it said the plot was too convoluted. “Disastrous! Everyone from editing to directing to acting has dropped the ball. They spent a Hollywood-sized budget on a homegrown cartoon that couldn’t even fool little kids. The story makes absolutely no sense,” a netizen wrote on Douban.

One of the trends in Chinese cinema is that local producers have specialised in lower-budget movies about everyday situations and social issues (a good example, the recent hit Dying to Survive). But in attempting bigger, Hollywood-style productions, the filmmaking challenges are different. That’s not to say that local producers are incapable of matching their international peers – about 60% of receipts at the box office in the first half of this year, or about Rmb18.8 billion in revenue, came from domestic productions.

However, Chinese moviemakers seem less comfortable in some of the genres where Western producers have much more experience, such as sci-fi and fantasy.

Audiences know it too, observed local media source Jiemian, especially younger movie-goers who watch a lot of foreign TV via internet streaming platforms, often illegally. Much of the criticism of Asura on social media has come from this younger demographic.

Another claim about Asura is that Alibaba’s rival Tencent is to blame for much of the negative word of mouth surrounding the film. The allegation is that the country’s leading online ticketing platform Maoyan, owned by Tencent, gave the film a pathetically low score of just 4.9 out of 10 to sabotage its prospects.

There were also claims that Maoyan hired internet trolls to log negative reviews to drag down the aggregate ratings. “This was the most despicable, silly and laughable effort in history to defame a film,” Asura’s production team fumed.

Perhaps uncoincidentally, the ratings for Asura were much higher on the Alibaba-owned ticketing service Tao Piaopiao. Nevertheless, the feedback on Douban, the leading review site, was as dismal as Maoyan’s, with an average rating of just 3.1 out of 10.

Hoping to salvage something from the debacle, the studio then announced it would make changes to the film before releasing it again.

Industry observers are sceptical that the plan will work. “Films are among the most perishable of products — a one-shot thing,” James Li, founder of Beijing-based movie market research firm Fankink, told Hollywood Reporter. “Unlike some consumer categories, there is very little chance to resurrect a movie once it is already out on the market.”

Asura wasn’t the only entertainment offering to enjoy the briefest and most disappointing of runs this month. The Chinese version of Saturday Night Live, which was promoted on the Alibaba-owned online video site Youku, has also been pulled. Youku acquired the rights to make a Chinese version of SNL from NBCUniversal last year. But after just three episodes the show was cancelled and previous material was taken down from the streaming site.

A representative at Youku explained that the episodes had been removed at the request of the show’s production team.

Even before the series got canned, it had been mocked online for its failure to entertain. Part of the problem should have been fairly obvious to the show’s producers: what makes SNL so popular in the United States is its skewering of political figures, perhaps most famously of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and more recently of the present incumbent of the White House, Donald Trump.

In contrast the Chinese version steered well clear of political jokes.

Huxiu, a portal, was particularly critical of the series, pointing out that acquiring the rights to SNL did not mean that it could be reproduced in China in the same spirit as the original. The show wasn’t even shown ‘live’, it complained, and the material was clearly approved by the censors.

“‘SNL is supposed to be a show poking fun at current affairs and politicians, and this is impossible in China,” a netizen wrote. “Therefore, it already had a congenital defect, not to mention inferior jokes.”

“There are no edgy materials; there is no sarcasm,” Entertainment Capital, an industry blog, concurred.

Lacking the leeway for political jokes, the Chinese version looked for other targets.

Jokes about the national football team featured heavily. It also tried to adapt some of the more popular skits from the original SNL but audiences complained that they fell flat. For instance, the Diner Lobster, a skit about a lobster launching into a rendition of Jean Valjean’s “Who Am I?” from Les Misérables, turned into a story about crayfish (a popular Chinese delicacy) being dirty.

Could Tencent be blamed for SNL’s failure too? Caixin seems to think so, saying that Tencent’s controversial talent show Produce 101 (see WiC 416) had stolen “Alibaba’s thunder” because the screening of the two programmes overlapped.

However, it seems spurious to blame the competition for the failure of what was an ill-conceived project in the first place.

SNL without politics was always going to be a hollow vessel.

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