China has an ‘Ishtar’ moment with its most expensive movie

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It was supposed to be China’s “Lord of the Rings.” Instead, it turned into another “Ishtar,” the infamous box office bomb of 1987.

Produced for more than $100 million, fantasy epic “Asura” was billed as the most expensive movie ever produced by China’s burgeoning film industry. It was supposed to spawn a trilogy based on Tibetan mythology by following a classic Hollywood playbook: Pair a time-tested story with sumptuous visual effects, big-name actors and industry veterans.

Then the movie hit theaters this month with a thud, grossing just $7 million. In a stunning retreat, the producers quickly yanked the mega-flop from theaters, offering no explanation.

“We apologize to the audience who never got to watch the movie and the inconvenience it caused,” they said on Chinese social media site Weibo.

“Asura” became the talk of the Chinese film industry. It was a humbling moment for an industry that is enjoying a record year at the box office and is poised to surpass the U.S. and Canada as the biggest theatrical market by 2020.

The failure of “Asura” is emblematic of a new reality confronting filmmakers in China. As it emulates U.S. studios with increasing budgets and franchise ambitions, audiences are becoming more discerning about what they want to see on the big screen.

The flop “is the final nail in the coffin for the erroneous belief that Chinese audiences will accept scale and visual effects over fundamental storytelling,” said Peter Shiao, CEO of film production and marketing company Orb Media in Los Angeles and Beijing.

Box office disasters are nothing new in Hollywood. U.S. film companies have been hammered by such overpriced and misguided efforts as the 1995 dud “Cutthroat Island” and Walt Disney’s “The Lone Ranger” in 2013. The late Michael Cimino’s 1980 disaster “Heaven’s Gate” nearly destroyed United Artists, later sold to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

China has weathered its share of box office flops. In 2010, it had a big miss with “Confucius,” a bloated biopic about the famous Chinese sage starring Chow Yun-Fat. Officials tried everything to get people to see it, including giving away tickets and pulling the popular “Avatar” from screens. Nothing worked.

But after “Asura,” some believe local investors will take a more cautious approach to funding big-budget spectacles.

“In the past, it’s been pretty easy for Chinese investors to raise money for movies like this,” said Scott Einbinder, whose company Cristal Pictures is backed by Hong Kong’s East Light Media. “That’s going to change.”

Others see “Asura” as a natural side effect of rapid growth in China.

“Chinese audiences are growing more and more sophisticated,” said Lindsay Conner, a China expert with the Los Angeles law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. “The Chinese film industry can support higher and higher budgets for its films. But the risks and rewards are both greater than ever.”

Recent co-productions with U.S. studios have fallen flat, as with 2016 Matt Damon fantasy “The Great Wall,” a $150 million production from Legendary East and Universal Pictures. Though American franchises such as the “The Fast & the Furious” and “Avengers” do well in China, others, such as “Star Wars,” struggle to make the crossover.

Beijing limits the number of movies allowed into the country from the U.S. and other nations as part of a revenue-sharing agreement. American studios have sought to increase the 34-film-a-year quota and the share of the box office grosses they collect from Chinese theaters (they get 25 percent of ticket revenue, compared with roughly 40 percent elsewhere). But trade disputes derailed those talks.

Nonetheless, China’s film industry continues to grow. Ticket sales are on track to surpass $9 billion this year, largely driven by Chinese productions that have drawn moviegoers to cineplexes in droves.

Four of the five highest-grossing movies released in China this year are domestic productions. The top movie, the nationalistic “Operation Red Sea,” collected $518 million. Last year, the patriotic action movie “Wolf Warrior 2” grossed more than $800 million.

More unexpected was the breakout success this month of the dark, low-budget comedy “Dying to Survive.” The movie, about the owner of a small drug store who smuggles generic medication from India to sell to cancer patients in China, became a national sensation. It has taken in $347 million so far, making it the fifth-highest-grossing movie ever in China.

Its popularity is all the more remarkable for tackling a hot-button issue in China’s highly censored media market. The film has reportedly accelerated government efforts to tamp down the price of cancer drugs.

By Ryan Faughnder and David Pierson
Sfchronicle

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