A chapter closes

Adaptation of hit novel shows all is not well in China’s entertainment scene

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Even Angelababy’s star power couldn’t rescue Ma Boyong’s new drama

Until recently writer Ma Boyong had a spotless record. The 41 year-old novelist has seen a number of his bestselling books adapted into TV series and films, such as  2019’s critically acclaimed The Longest Day of Chang’an, a costume drama starring pop icon Yiyang Qianxi, and last year’s Luoyang, which featured heartthrob Wang Yibo.

The writer, famous for his historical crime novels, is known for mixing fiction with real events, a style that has inspired comparison to the legendary martial arts novelist Louis Cha (also known by his pen name Jin Yong). 

“There’s so much material to work on from China’s long history,” he told the South China Morning Post in an interview. “I particularly like the Three Kingdoms period as I liked to play video games and read comics based on that period during my childhood.”

But a new costume drama based on another one of his novels, The Wind Blows From Longxi, also set in the Three Kingdoms period, proves that not everything Ma touches turns to gold.

The new series, which features actor Chen Kun in the lead role and a cameo from superstar actress Angelababy, has set a new record, although not the one that Ma would have wanted.

Ratings for the show, which is being shown by state broadcaster CCTV, have been hovering around 0.4% and 0.6% of the viewing audience since its release in mid-April. That is so disappointing that it sets the record for the lowest primetime ratings for the channel in recent years (most primetime dramas on CCTV, which is free to air across the country, score at least 1% in ratings and some of the more popular ones have exceeded 2%).

Even on iQiyi, which purchased the streaming rights to the 24-episode show, viewership has been miserable. The series, which concluded its run last week, never scored above 7,300 in the platform’s ‘heat’ index (iQiyi stopped disclosing actual view counts in 2018). For comparison, My Sassy Princess, an idol costume drama with an unremarkable cast that was released around the same time, had a ‘heat value’ of 8,200.

The response to the series is  bad news for Ma but also for Angelababy, who has made much of her career from winning over large audiences (leading to offers of enormous pay packets of as much as Rmb2 million per episode).

Longxi is the story of spy Chen Gong (played by Chen). His job is to provide intelligence to Zhuge Liang, the chancellor of Shu Han, but another spy enters the mix and gives Zhuge mistaken intel, which leads to the famed strategist making a wrong move. The story then sees Chen finding a way to clear his name, while also rooting out the bogus rival agent.

The response to Longxi on Douban, the TV series and film review site, has been much better than the audience data, with the costume drama achieving a rating of 7.9 out of 10, one of the best of the year. Fans of the show say that it’s beautifully shot and well produced.

“The finale of Longxi ended beautifully and all the characters really came to life. The screenplay is so well written, giving all the actors a lot of material to work with. You can tell that all the actors spent a lot of time working on their performances,” one admirer gushed.

So why then did such strong word-of-mouth reviews do so little to lift the viewing figures? One argument is that relying on a spy story to tell the Three Kingdoms tale might have alienated viewers.

“On the one hand, expressing a story of the Three Kingdoms in a form of espionage is innovative; on the other, some believe that by focusing on the marginal characters in the tale, the show fails to deliver much substance,” one critic wrote.

Ma’s reversal of fortune came as a surprise as The Longest Day of Chang’an was a massive hit – bringing as many as 10 million new paying subscribers to Youku. Its success also led to a bidding war for the rights to Ma’s other novels. Out of the 15 he has written, six have already been made into films and TV series and nine more are scheduled for release soon. “Film and television is not only art, it is also a business. If studios invest a huge amount of money of course they expect a ‘Chang-an style’ return. But judging from the consecutive disappointing performances of Luoyang and Longxi, a breakout show is not easily replicated. If anything, this proves that the harder you try, the more elusive success becomes,” commented Blue Whale Media.

The disappointing ratings also came at a time when streaming platforms and television networks are showing signs of budgetary restraint after years of unsustainable expenditure on buying content. Zhang Li, a producer of minor TV series, told Entertainment Capital, a blog, that his studio was on the verge of bankruptcy because streaming platforms like Tencent Video and iQiyi have pulled back on spending.  Zhang says that some of his dramas have even been abandoned mid-production because the streaming platforms have not paid up and other projects were being pushed back indefinitely.

He had no choice but to close down his company two months ago, he added. “In the beginning, we had less than 10 people. Later, business was so good we hired more than a hundred staff. Now there are only two left,” Zhang noted of his rise and fall. “It’s impossible to make a living.”

For producers like Zhang, making TV series for streaming platforms was previously a stable source of income. But the prospects for future sales have looked bleaker as the video streaming platforms cut back. In March iQiyi promised a new era of cost control to dramatically reduce  losses and break even in 2024, for instance.

This tighter management across the sector is already being reflected in the number of new shows on offer this year. “The total number of TV series launched in the first half of 2021 was 160, that’s close to an average of 30 series a month across all the platforms. But the average number of new series launched on the four major platforms this year is about three and the cumulative number hasn’t even exceeded 20,” Entertainment Capital surmised. “There’s a lot of studios with no new projects; and no new projects means no cash inflows.”

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