Edited out of the picture

A studio wants to use AI to remove a controversial actress from a drama


Fan Bingbing: her role in Legend of Ba Qing has delayed its release

Back in 2007, a court in Shenzhen became embroiled in a bribery scandal. To rid the venue of bad luck, local officials hired a feng shui master. He noted that the eastern side of the building was facing a factory spewing black smoke. The entrance to the court also had an unlucky number of stairs, the Beijing Times reported at the time.

Feng shui may strike some as a less than surefire way to end a losing streak. Scandal-prone Zhejiang Talent Television & Film, which has been buffetted by an array of bad luck, has decided feng shui may not suffice to solve it problems – which involve a long-delayed TV show – and is hoping new technologies will work instead.

The studio, which saw its share price drop from Rmb19.35 ($2.73) in March 2018 to Rmb6.20 this week – losing as much as Rmb5 billion in market value – is gambling that the release of its ‘quarantined’ drama Legend of Ba Qing could deliver the financial boost it needs. The series, also known as Win The World, is an epic historical period piece that stars actress Fan Bingbing and actor Gao Yunxiang. It chronicles the life of Ba Qing, the wealthiest woman in the Qin Dynasty and her romantic relationship with Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC), China’s first emperor.

Last week, Zhejiang Talent announced that it plans to spend a further Rmb60 million reshooting with digital technology, using new AI (artificial intelligence) technology developed with Alibaba to replace some of its “key actors” with fresh talent. Filming will be wrapped before the end of the year and the plan is for the series to be shown on Youku, the online video platform owned by Alibaba.

While Zhejiang Talent did not give specific details on the reshoot, there is little doubt that new scenes are needed to get the troubled project past the censors. Costly though the approach is, it means Zhejiang Talent won’t have to write off the entire investment (the series reportedly cost Rmb500 million to produce).

The problems with Legend of Ba Qing started almost as soon as filming was finished. Early last year two historians of the period accused the show of being factually inaccurate and (even worse) of using Japanese instead of Qin costumes. The producers fought this controversy and received initial clearance from the authorities to air in April.

But a month before its release, lead male actor Gao made unwanted headlines when he was arrested in Sydney after a woman accused him of sexual assault (he has been released on bail, but awaits trial in Australia). The show was forced to postpone its TV debut once again.

A few months later Fan then disappeared from the public eye, following allegations from a well-known television presenter that she had been trying to dodge taxes (see WiC412). Later she was found guilty of the charge and forced to pay nearly $70 million in unpaid taxes and penalties. The controversy also saw her banned from making public appearances and led to the release of Legend of Ba Qing being suspended indefinitely.

The “key actors” likely to be replaced in the reshooting have been widely interpreted as Fan and Gao.

With a run of bad luck like this, the producers of the series could have been forgiven for hiring a phalanx of feng shui gurus. Because of the various disasters, Zhejiang Talent had no clear path to recouping its production costs, despite pre-selling exclusive online broadcasting rights to Youku at a price of Rmb7.5 million per episode.

Dragon Satellite TV and Jiangsu Satellite TV had both paid Rmb235 million to acquire the rights to the show for network television too.

All of this was refundable if regulators failed to green light the drama (the studio warned that if it did not receive a release date for the show, it risked incurring at least Rmb740 million of bad debt). News of the reshooting suggests that there is a way forward for the series, however. “If spending Rmb60 million could help a drama series that costs Rmb500 million rise from the dead, even just to recoup some of that cost, then it seems like it’s worth the gamble,” ThePaper.cn said. Still, many netizens seem lukewarm in their expectations of the series. An online poll on Sina found that only 9% of respondents were looking forward to the show; 68% expressed little or no interest; though 19% said they could understand why Zhejiang Talent would want to salvage it.

“It is obvious that audiences – and the industry as a whole – are not very optimistic about Legend of Ba Qing. However, for Zhejiang Talent, it is probably the only move it can make now to minimise the financial damage. After all, its financial results have been dragged down since Ba Qing was embroiled in so many scandals. To reshoot the show is its last ditch effort to save the studio,” concluded TMT Post.

Yet TMT Post also questioned whether the delays to the series would deal a mortal blow to its commercial prospects. “When the show first started filming in 2016, female-centric dramas were hugely popular. Many of the biggest hit shows at the time had strong female leads. However, since then costume dramas have been badly beaten up and state media has criticised historical dramas for having a negative effect on society. In the last few months, only a handful of costume dramas got the green light to air. Female-centric shows, too, have been losing their earlier appeal with audiences… So for Legend of Ba Qing to succeed is not going to be easy,” the portal surmised.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.