Celebrities, Entertainment

On a mission

Could Wang Yibo’s popular new drama boost iQiyi’s sagging bottom line?

Wang Yibo w

Wang Yibo: his devoted fans battled with trolls on Douban review site

In 2019 Youku released the suspense drama The Longest Day in Chang’an. Much like the premise of US hit 24, the show takes place over a single day. It followed an intelligence chief and a death row prisoner as they work together to stop a conspiracy that could topple the Tang Dynasty in Chang’an. The series was an instant hit on the online streaming platform. It also established Yi Yangqianxi – better known in China as one of the members of the boyband TF Boys – as an actor.

Two years later, Youku’s rival iQiyi aimed to recreate the same success with a similar historical suspense drama Luoyang. This time round, Yi is replaced by another pop idol: Wang Yibo.

Luoyang is adapted from the original novel by Ma Boyong, who also wrote The Longest Day of Chang’an. The show centres on Gao Bingzhu, played by actor Huang Xuan, a lowly worker in the judicial department who suddenly finds himself embroiled in a criminal case. As he races against the clock to prove his innocence, Gao seeks out Baili Hongyi (Wang), who is on a quest of his own to find out who killed his father.

Along with another intelligence officer Wu Siyue (the actress Song Qian), the three strangers work together to uncover a massive conspiracy that could destroy the city.

Luoyang was the capital of the short-lived dynasty founded by Wu Zetian – the first and only female emperor (690-705). Today Luoyang still exists as a city in central Henan province.

The drama has stirred plenty of debate online, with many giving the show a five-star rating on Douban, the TV series and film review site, for its attention to detail in the costumes, props and action-packed screenplay.

“After the first six episodes, it is clear that no expense was spared on production. But it was definitely money well spent,” pronounced Entertainment Industry, a show business blog. “The beauty of the city of Luoyang: the hustle and bustle of the city; the mysterious and yet busy intelligence agents disguised as everyday persons… These scenes really showcase the historical significance of Luoyang. No wonder so many people posted on social media the hashtag #WantToVisitHenan after the show aired.”

Wang’s performance in the drama has proved more polarising. Hundreds of trolls on Douban bombarded the series with one-star ratings and left aggressive comments about the idol, who became one of the biggest names in Chinese entertainment after the costume drama The Untamed proved a huge success in the summer of 2019. His fans were enraged, noting that many of the comments were posted an hour before the show was broadcast, suggesting that many were attacking the actor without even having seen an episode.

“I would suggest the director spends more time coaching the actors instead of putting all the effort into costume and props,” one of the critical posts scoffed.

“Absolutely garbage, especially Wang Yibo, from his acting to delivering his lines,” another lambasted.

Before long Wang’s fans were chiming in to support their hero, showering the show with five star ratings and leaving gushy reviews. The tug of war between fans and trolls was so intense that Douban even opted to disable its ratings function for Luoyang in a bid to maintain some neutrality.

Other critics spoke against the the worst of the nasty comments. “The practice of blindly trolling on the internet without even having seen the film or TV show is not only misleading for unsuspicious netizens, but also blatantly disrespects the literary work and efforts of the production teams. It is deceiving: every user that goes on the platform hoping to see a true evaluation of a show or film,” China Youth Daily warned. “If things go on like this, platforms like Douban will lose their credibility with the public and it will be increasingly difficult to find a trustworthy source of objective criticisms.”

The commercial performance of Luoyang is also being watched closely by analysts and investors. That’s because the show is the first of what iQiyi calls its Chinese Historic City Universe (iCHCU), the title of a portfolio of content claiming inspiration from Chinese cities in history (the list includes places like Beijing, Dunhuang and Nanjing). At the press conference in late November in Shanghai, the streaming company emphasised the significance of iCHCU as part of its efforts to diversify the commercial value of its intellectual property.

iQiyi needs to find new sources of income. In August, it dropped production of idol talent shows ― one of its best earners ― as the government railed against “chaotic” celebrity fan culture. The streaming giant has also announced plans to fire as much as a fifth of its workforce in a bid to stem growing losses. In the third quarter, it reported a 6% increase in revenues, reaching Rmb7.6 billion ($1.19 billion). But losses widened from Rmb1.2 billion in 2020 to Rmb1.7 billion in the equivalent period.

The company blames increases in content costs for the deficit but another key challenge is how to use series like Luoyang to convert more of the audience into paying subscribers, especially in markets like Southeast and East Asia where there are significant ethnic Chinese populations.

The goal is to increase the number of paying overseas customers at iQiyi to half its total subscriber base by 2024, analysts said.

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