As everyone who follows the Chinese film industry already knows, the would-be blockbuster Asura had one of the strangest and most ignominious openings in film history last weekend. With an estimated budget of US $113 million, it ranked as the most expensive domestic production of all time, and featured a high-profile international cast and crew including Chinese teen heartthrob Lei Wu, Hong Kong legends Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Carina Lau, the costume designer from the Lord of the Rings movies and the visual effects supervisor from Deadpool. But after an anemic opening weekend of $7.1 million and a huge decline in box office even from Friday to Sunday, the film was yanked from theaters on Sunday evening like a vaudeville act getting the cane.
The producers announced their decision to pull the movie via the film’s official Weibo account (in Chinese). Some stories have emphasized that the producers (and not the theaters) pulled the movie. This is true, but elides the fact that Chinese theaters adjust the number of theaters every day for every film, especially on a film’s opening weekend. By Sunday evening Asura was already circling the drain, caught in a vicious cycle of low admissions, terrible reviews, and dwindling screens, and the producers faced a Hobson’s choice of pulling the movie themselves or having it effectively pulled for them.
No one quite believes the producers’ announced plan for Asura, which is that they will modify the film and re-release it. Numerous films have been successfully retooled after preview screenings, but after a wide release with a huge marketing push? It reminds me of the long and troubled history of the Broadway show Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which at the time was the most expensive Broadway show in history, had the most number of “previews” in history, and was revamped several times but still ended up losing more than $60 million.
But if the producers really are going to re-release Asura, their plan to pull the movie early may have been a stroke of genius: by pulling the movie early, they may have given up a million or so in revenue, but they’re getting that back and more with the free publicity surrounding the mystery of what’s next. And the producers are just adding fuel to the fire by alleging they were sabotaged by a deluge of (ostensibly fake) negative reviews. I can’t decide which P.T. Barnum quote is more apt: “There’s a sucker born every minute” or “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”
The coverage has bordered on the gleeful, with pundits from across the spectrum weighing in on what went wrong. Everyone agrees that the movie was a disaster, with particular attention to the effects (uninspiring), the story (a strange fusion of Tibetan mythology and action-adventure tropes), the actors (poorly cast), and the marketing (off-putting with its emphasis on the movie’s cost). Indeed, in retrospect it’s hard to identify anything that went right with this movie.
Asura wasn’t some strange labor of love backed by a mysterious billionaire. It was a studio film, produced by powerful and experienced Chinese companies like Zhenjian Film Studio, Ningxia Film Group and Alibaba Pictures. Numerous executives must have weighed in on every aspect of development and production, yet nobody with the power to stop it ever did. I can honestly say that this movie looked horrible and I would have predicted that it would fail, but I would have said the same thing about Warcraft and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and those movies went gangbusters in China despite being largely ignored in the rest of the world.
As a general rule, I root for Chinese films to succeed. But if this film was as bad as it seems, it’s good that it failed, because Chinese audiences deserve better. Maybe the failure of Asura will even prove a corrective to Chinese studios trotting out 17 Monkey King movies every year. But I doubt it.
The real lesson from Asura, and the reason I think its implosion will ultimately prove to be a good thing, is that it shows the Chinese film industry is maturing. It can fail, and fail spectacularly, in the same way that Hollywood has done for years (see, for instance, Cleopatra, Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, Cutthroat Island, The Adventures of Pluto Nash, and John Carter). And just like Hollywood, the Chinese film industry will shrug off this failure, because the Chinese film industry is doing just fine – the two movies that dominated the box office last week, Dying to Survive and Hidden Man, are home-grown successes attracting audiences and critical acclaim in equal measure.
It bears noting that Renny Harlin, director of Cutthroat Island, has moved to China and restarted his once-faltering career, with numerous big-budget films lined up including one for Alibaba Pictures. What could possibly go wrong?