‘Asura’ is NOT China’s Most Expensive Movie

But, It is Already One of the Biggest Flops of All Time

By Ryan Carroll, Editor-at-Large

July, 2018.

Trade HEADLINES: China’s Most Expensive Movie Ever / China’s First $100MMUSD Movie Ever – Pulled From Cinemas!!! etc. etc.

They are all wrong.

Asura is by far not China’s most expensive movie, but it is their first $100MMUSD blockbuster (sans-inflation) to actually make it to the box-office.

China has had a couple of other expensive movies that adjusted for currency exchange and inflation most likely would top $100MM in today’s terms:

·      Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War – $94MMUSD (2011) / Box-Office $95MM

·      John Woo’s Red Cliff – $80MMUSD (2008) / Box-Office $246MM

Note. Red Cliff was released in two-parts for total box-office of $246MM

With other more recent films such as the Red Liberation Film Operation Red Sea($70MM) and The Monkey King Trilogy ($85MM average), raising the bar on budgets but they are more the exception to the rule than the norm.

The majority of larger budgeted films made in China range between $30-40MM on the top end. This is due to the unquestionable fact that Chinese films do not play well outside of Mainland China.

With the exceptions of a “Three Kingdoms” film such as Red Cliff or a Monkey King movie, that occasionally plays well in other Asian markets where these stories have historical resonance culturally. 

Japan represented the largest box-office for Red Cliff as Part 1 brought in $52.4MM in Japan, compared to China’s $46.7MM. While Red Cliff: Part 2 raked in $56.4MM with China seeing a significant drop at only $38MM.

Results like Red Cliff‘s take in Japan, after the 2016 box-office boom in China, will likely become a historical cinema anomaly than an established trend. If we ever see this happen again.

Asura’s dismal $7.4MMUSD 10-Day take places it as one of the biggest flops in modern cinema history – unadjusted or not – putting it up there with the likes of infamous bombs Cutthroat IslandMars Needs Moms, and the Good Ol’ Eddie Murphy flick The Adventures of Pluto Nash.

Although, Asura is the biggest loser, thus-far, in China’s burgeoning box-office, and with a reported budget of $115MM, but it is not China’s most expensive movie to date. That title goes to the unreleased 2012-ish fantasy epic Empires of the Deep.

A film that is reported to have a budget exceeding $140MMUSD and including other aspects beyond just the production budget itself, could be much higher. As many actors and crew members are said to have not yet been paid, and over its 8 years in the making has gone through 4 directors and 10 screenwriters. 

The film at one time claimed to be an American-China co-production, which is highly unlikely and more of a talking point towards its backers than ever a reality.

Empires of the Deep in its claims, production woes, and over-inflated ridiculous budget, reminds me of the countless $100MMUSD “film funds” that were claimed to exist since the 2016 boom. With one coming out of nowhere at the end of last year. That was questioned to be a money funneling or laundering scheme, instead of an actual film fund with equity in the bank for real productions.

Empires of the Deep is a vanity project of its brainchild Jon Jiang Hongyu, a realtor billionaire who gained his fortune through China’s economic assent and spent much of his own monies in producing the project. 

How this film was never released is the true mystery. 

Being a vanity project of a Chinese billionaire, one would assume that he would have continued to utilize his wealth to see the project through its entire fruition. For some reason it just never came to be. Whether it was the loss of his wealth, civil actions, government crackdown of debt and/or graft, being behind its continued non-release is still unclear.

The interesting thing that links Asura to Empires of the Deep is that both were intended as tentpole films to launch a larger epic fantasy franchise that would become the Lord of the Rings / Game of Thrones / Star Wars of China.

While both “franchises” have taken their inspirations from foreign mythological sources; Empire of the Deep coming from Greek mythology, while Asura comes from India and Tibetan Buddhism.

The reasoning behind Asura being pulled from cinemas in China within ten days is less of a mystery than Empire of the Deep‘s inability to emerge from whatever depths it may lay in.

The official explanation by its production backers Zhenjian Films, Ningxia Film Group, and Alibaba Pictures, is to retool the film and release it again, and not because it only made $7MM in its opening.

Later Zhenjian Films restated their purpose and claimed that Asura has received The Last Jedi internet troll treatment that led its aggregated critic scores, on sites like Douban, to drive potential theater goers away. Which is a stretch along the lines that many claimed The Last Jedi‘s box-office was an, outright bomb or at least a disappointment. A film that brought in $620MM domestically and $1.3Bn worldwide.

This idea of troll sabotage goes by the wayside when you consider that 90% (and rising) of all movie tickets in China are purchased via ticketing apps, and Alibaba owns the largest ticketing app Tiao Piaopiao. Controlling 40% of the market at this moment. Giving it direct access to push its own tentpole film without major competitor setbacks.

Even when the Tencent backed Maoyan-Weiying is slowly gaining traction on Tiao Piaopiao, a 40% market share is still a considerably powerful marketing tool.

What is the reasoning behind Asura producing not only empty seats but empty screens across the Middle Kingdom?

Chinese research firm Fankink told THR that based on their pre-release tracking the hype for the film was at best lackluster, due to a poor marketing job by the studios behind it. Something that rings true when one considers Alibaba’s skin in the game.

Along with poor marketing, reportedly bad visual effects for a $115MMUSD movie, were on potential movie goer’s mind. From viewing the trailer (see below) the style or execution of the CGI VFX did not convince Chinese audience either in choosing this movie over others, such as the surprise hit Dying to Survive.

The poor VFX for a $100+ tentpole picture has lead many in the Chinese film industry to question the production’s actual budget spending and cost. Poor VFX, even those that bring in Hollywood VFX Supervisors, or hire Hollywood VFX studios, like Tippett Studios’ work on Monster Hunt. Never live up to the standards of Hollywood films with the same production budgets, and even produce poorer quality VFX than Hollywood films with half the budgets of their Chinese counterparts.

A problem that persists even after the 2016 box-office boom.

So, where does all this money go, if not towards the production value and in particular VFX? It obviously goes inside of certain people’s pockets directly. An issue that plagued the Chinese industry ten years ago, and appears to still be an issue.

There is another contender for the most expensive film ever produced, but again unreleased, Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem book adaptation from YooZoo Pictures. A film that was initially shot back in 2015, but also due to poor visual effects and execution, has laid somewhere in depths along with Empires of the Deep.

Three-Body Problem‘s budget is unknown, but the potential of its fanbase has led Amazon Prime to reportedly consider spending $1BnUSD in acquiring the rights from YooZoo Pictures and Youzu Interactive, whose Chairman owns the licensing rights, to produce a three season series.

Asura is far from being the most expensive movie made in China, but even if Empires of the Deep or the first Three-Body Problem film were released in the cinemas. They would most likely rake in more than $7MM at the box-office over their opening weekends.

The fan-base alone for Three-Body Problem would make it number one in its opening weekend, but that was never the concern for the film not yet being released. It was always the poor quality and backlash to one of China’s most valued but underutilized IP that stopped it from being released so far.

With the right marketing Empires of the Deep could bring out a solid opening weekend. As a 3D film that was so plagued by disaster and bad luck, the kitschy-ness of the film could be enough to intrigue people to go see it. If sold right.

Asura is neither of these. It is an outright box-office bomb that its studio backers have tried to pass off as “not their fault”, when in reality it is. No matter if the studios re-edit or re-shoot the film, a second theatrical release will not turn this flick into a box-office success.

Leaving Asura as one of the greatest box-office bombs in modern cinema history.

Where it could lie as a hit is for Alibaba’s Youku-Tudou platform, as an event “Original Content Premiere” along the lines of Netflix’s dropping a surprise trailer for the Cloverfield Paradox during last year’s Super Bowl. With the film premiering on Netflix just after the game finishes. Saving a valued Paramount Pictures / JJ Abram’s franchise IP from being drug through the proverbial box-office mud, with a theatrical release.

Will Alibaba and company follow this path with Asura or will they attempt reshoots, re-edits, new CGI, etc. for a second go at the China box-office later this year, or more likely next? Not if they are smart, but the Chinese industry is still new with few seasoned executives behind it, so it is anyone’s guess….

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About the Author
Born and raised in the Missouri-Ozarks Ryan studied Film Production, and East Asian Culture, at the University of Kansas where he was a UGRA recipient that led him on a seven-year long, Journey From the West, to China. Where he worked with Warner Brothers, the China Film Group Corp. and the National Bureau of Statistics of China. Before returning to the States, where he specializes in Chinese Anime & Comics, China’s Box-Office, and Chinese entertainment-tech industries. He has a dog in China, Abigail, and a dog in the Arkansas-Ozarks, King Blue, who help ease his anxiety of suffering from the “Two-Dimensional Complex” that is trying to understand the Culture Industry landscapes of the Middle Kingdom.