How ‘Asura’’s record budget produced an epic box office flop
On paper, China’s latest epic movie Asura checked all the right boxes: The star-studded cast combined veteran Hong Kong actors with the latest mainland teenage heart throbs. It had dazzling action scenes, lavish costumes, technical and production support from the Hollywood crews that worked on Furious 7 and Deadpool.
Still, the movie failed miserably, grossing 49 million yuan after it was screened in 118,000 sessions over three days in the world’s largest movie market, earning less than 10 per cent of its 750 million yuan (US$111 million) production budget, according to Baidu Nuomi’s data.
Taking six years to develop, Asura is an epic based on Buddhist mythology that sought to make itself into the Chinese hybrid of The Lord of the Rings and the Game of Thrones.
A third of the film’s budget went to special effects and computer-generated imagery in 2,400 scenes throughout the movie’s 141-minute running time. Costumes by an Oscar-winning costume designer cost 30 million yuan, while fees for the cast took up 75 million yuan.
Filming took place in the Ningxia and Tibet autonomous regions, filling the screen with blue sky, alpine lakes and open plains.
Despite the spectacular vista, the convoluted plot failed, spurring even Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Global Times, a nationalist tabloid that’s usually quick in celebrating Chinese achievements, to pan the movie.
“It could not even tell a proper story,” Hu wrote on his Weibo blog site. “The producers just need to knock their heads against the wall” and reflect on what they’ve done, he wrote. “Millions of yuan just got wasted.”
The flop by China’s most expensive movie is a reminder that cinema patrons in the US$8.2 billion box office market are rapidly changing their tastes, and that Hollywood stardust may be coming off from multimillion dollar productions and blockbuster epics.
A good case in point was The Last Jedi, the eighth instalment of The Walt Disney Company’s Star Wars franchise. The highest-grossing movie of 2017, with more than US$1.3 billion in worldwide box office, took in just US$38 million in China after two weeks, becoming the worst flop in the country after The Lone Ranger, also by Disney.
Chinese movie goers “will not embrace everyone,” said Stanley Rosen, who specialises in Chinese politics and film at the University of Southern California.
“The first Star Wars movie came out in 1977 so a lot of people in the western world grew up with it,” Rosen said. “But you don’t have that built-in audience in China because American films were not shown until very recently.”
Conversely, the box office champions in China last year had been an eclectic mix of nationalist fare, Hindi drama and low-budget productions.
The current box office leader is Dying to Survive, a dark comedy described as China’s answer to the Dallas Buyers Club, about leukaemia patients’ struggle to access generic Indian drugs. It has already taken in 2.6 billion yuan (US$384 million) to become the sixth-highest grossing film in China of all times.
Hindi drama Dangal, made for US$10 million, earned two-thirds of its US$330 million worldwide takings in China. The same went for last year’s Hindi musical Secret Superstar - made for US$2.2 million, grossing US$140 million worldwide - which would become the fifth-biggest foreign movie in China of 2018.
“These family dramas don’t even have to be in Chinese, but they resonate in China. [They have] something people can see related to their own lives and has an impact on them,” Rosen said.
Resonance wasn’t quite on offer in Asura, a mythical battle between good and evil based on Buddhist texts.
Tony Leung Ka-fai, the four-time best actor winner at the Hong Kong Film Awards, and Carina Lau Kar-ling, lead the cast. Leo Wu Lei, the 18-year-old idol dubbed “Nation’s Little Brother” in China, also has a major role.
The movie’s lavish costumes took a year to design under Ngila Dickson, who won the 2004 Oscar for her work in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, said Yang Zhenjian, the producer and major investor of the movie, who also wrote the script.
Martín Hernandez, who worked on Birdman, served as the audio director while Charlie Iturriaga, who took part in the production of Deadpool and Furious 7, was in charge of the visual effects.
All in, the project involved more than 200 people from 35 countries, with 1,600 local staff, Yang said.
“The concept of the film is ahead of the whole film industry by at least six years,” he said, according to a promotional video of the movie.
Besides Yang, the biggest investor of the movie was state-owned Ningxia Film Studio, which provided the location for the shooting. Other major investors include Beijing Weiying Technology, which develops online movie ticket booking platforms and CHS Media, a listed Zhejiang-based studio. Alibaba Pictures, a unit of this newspaper’s owner Alibaba Group Holdings, was a minority investor of the movie.
“This is a particularly bad situation,” Rosen said. “Unless they can somehow put the film back in theatres, re-edit it and do a better job with it, there won’t be any sequels.”