China's First $100M Film Pulled From Cinemas After Disastrous Opening Weekend

The producers of fantasy epic 'Asura' promoted the project as China's most expensive movie ever made, but it earned just $7.1 million over its opening weekend.

In the long lead-up to its release, Chinese fantasy epic Asura was promoted as China's most expensive film ever made, with a production budget of over $110 million (750 million yuan). So perhaps it's unsurprising that the film's producers, which include Jack Ma's Alibaba Pictures, decided to take desperate action after the movie opened to just $7.1 million over the weekend.

Late Sunday evening in Beijing, Asura's official social media accounts posted a simple statement saying that the film would be pulled from cinemas as of 10 p.m. local time. After landing in theaters with limited fanfare, China's priciest picture ever would vanish from the scene entirely.

Asura is co-produced by Zhenjian Film Studio and Ningxia Film Group — two of the investors behind the successful Painted Skin fantasy franchise — along with Alibaba Pictures Group and other minority investors.

The statement announcing Asura's retreat from cinemas supplied no explanation for the unprecedented move. But a representative from Zhenjian Film, which is credited as lead producer, later told Chinese news site Sina: "This decision was made not only because of the bad box office. We plan to make some changes to the film and release it again."

A spokesperson for the film declined to comment when contacted by THR on Monday. 

The producers had hoped that Asura would serve as the kickoff to a major fantasy franchise — a property akin to China's own Lord of the Rings. The film is an original dramatization of ancient Tibetan mythology, with a vast set of characters occupying different heavenly realms. Teenage heartthrob Lei Wu plays the film's hero, a young boy who must embark on an epic journey to save Asura, a godly dimension of pure desire, after it is threatened by a coup from a lower kingdom. Veteran Hong Kong actors Tony Ka Fai Leung and Carina Lau also star as mythical demigods.

Some in the Chinese industry have expressed skepticism over Asura's purported $113 million budget — most of China's biggest blockbusters, such as Wolf Warrior 2 ($870), have been made for about half that much — but it's clear that the film's backers spent heavily on foreign production talent and lavish visual effects. The film's costumes were designed by Oscar-winner Ngila Dickson (Lord of the Rings), while Hollywood veteran Martín Hernandez served as audio director (The Revenant, Birdman) and Charlie Iturriaga (Deadpool, Furious 7) supervised the VFX work. The film is the directorial debut of Hollywood stunt coordinator-turned-filmmaker Peng Zhang (Rush Hour 3, Twilight 1 & 2).

Adding a layer of intrigue to the saga, Asura's backers are now alleging sabotage.

Some 90 percent of all Chinese movie tickets are bought online and two mobile ticketing platforms currently dominate the market, Alibaba-owned Tiao Piao Piao and Maoyan, partially backed by Tencent. Both services supply average user review scores for every film on release — numbers that have the same controversial power as Rotten Tomatoes' "tomatometer ratings" or Metacritic's "metascores" in North America. A third influential Chinese review aggregator, Douban.com, operates independently of the ticketing services and is known to attract a more discerning, sometimes snarky, reviewer community.

Just as trolls have occasionally gamed Rotten Tomatoes ratings in the U.S., Chinese studios have sometimes alleged that their scores were unfairly hurt by fake negative reviews — or that the competition was boosted by purchased positive ones. Such ghostwriters for hire are known in China as "shuijun," a pejorative term that literally means “water army,” because companies pay them to “flood” forums with fake reviews.

Asura's producers are now alleging that they were targeted by a particularly aggressive "water army" attack. In a second social media post, they say they discovered a large number of 1/10 reviews for Asura posted to Maoyan by suspicious accounts immediately after the film's release. Describing the episode as "the shame of the industry," they say a sizable discrepancy soon emerged between Asura's early average scores on Maoyan (4.9/10) and on Alibaba's Tiao Piao Piao (8.4/10). The statement concludes with a series of pointed statements directed at Maoyan, questioning the integrity of the platform's rating system and asking when the company will take action to address such problems. The post also ends with some disparaging words for the shadowy, unknown perpetrators of the campaign, saying that "whoever is behind this is dirty, stupid and ridiculous."

Asura's disastrously small debut may be the result of more important factors than a temporary rigging of Maoyan's ratings, however (After all, the ticketing service is usually estimated to have a market share of less than 40 percent).

A more obvious explanation could be that the film opened against uncommonly strong competition. During the same frame that Asura debuted to just $7.1 million, holdover blockbuster Dying to Survive added $69 million for an 11-day total of $366 million, while veteran actor-director Jiang Wen's much anticipated period action movie Hidden Man opened to a healthy $46.2 million. Both films also have been critical favorites: Dying to Survive ranks at 8.9/10 or higher across all Chinese platforms, while Hidden Man has an average score of about 7.4/10.

The available tracking data also suggests that the usual makers of a bomb — low audience interest, weak marketing — also probably played a part. "Based on our tracking, prerelease market heat for this movie was quite low — below average," a representative for Beijing-based market research firm Fankink told THR Monday.

Asura's score on Maoyan also moderated to 6.4/10 as the weekend progressed, while its rating on Alibaba's Tao Piaopiao dropped to 7.1/10 by Sunday. If Maoyan's score started unfairly low, Tao Piao Piao's may have been initially inflated (both ticketing services have since pulled Asura's scores, since the film is no longer on release). Meanwhile, on Douban, Asura has held to the uncommonly low score of 3.1/10. Fair play or the work of a water army? The Internet in China will soon have its say.