Another Film Yanked From Chinese Cinemas After Poor Opening, Producers Vow Rerelease

'Kung Food' Still - Screengrab - H 2018
YouTube screengrab

The case of the animated family pic 'Kung Food,' which opened to just $420,000 despite the support of powerhouse studio Beijing Culture, echoes the recent debacle of 'Asura,' China's biggest flop ever.

Chinese studio Yi Animation had high hopes for its first feature film release, Kung Food, an adaptation of a popular children's TV series about an adventurous steamed dumpling.

But after the animated film opened to just $420,000 last weekend — after costing $12 million and taking more than half a decade to develop and produce — the company and its partners resorted to desperate action. On Monday, the film was pulled from cinemas, with the director posting an apology to social media, saying he would make changes to improve the film and attempt to release it again.

Kung Food opened in a crowded weekend, facing off against the debut of Sony's big-budget animated feature Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (which has earned $23.1 million to date), as well as Warner Bros' holdover giant shark hit The Meg ($136 million) and Chinese blockbuster The Island ($180 million). Still, the severity of Kung Food's flop surprised many in the Chinese industry, given that the title was marketed and distributed by Beijing Culture, a local studio which has been on a two-year hot streak. The company was one of the lead producers of Dying to Survive ($450 million), China's biggest hit this summer, as well as the 2017 mega-blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2 ($870 million).

"Pulling the film was a mutual decision between the production company and distributor," wrote Sun Haipeng, Kung Food's helmer, in his apology post. "We only hope that after many years of effort, our film will be seen by more audiences. We will upgrade the film during this period of time, and when it is released again, everybody will see a more complete and better work."

The Kung Food episode echoes the recent, curious case of Asura, the Alibaba-backed fantasy epic now known as China's biggest flop ever. Produced at a cost of over $110 million, Asura opened to a disastrous $7 million in July, prompting producers to pull the film and allege that its release had been sabotaged. A representative for Zhenjian Film, the pic's lead producer, later told local media that changes would be made to the movie and it would eventually be rereleased. (No updates have followed.)

If either Asura or Kung Food manage to get released a second time — and do so successfully — the producers will be setting an entirely new precedent for the film business. Classic movies and cult favorites have been rereleased fruitfully in various territories around the world — the best examples include George Lucas's lucrative Star Wars rereleases and James Cameron's 3D update of Titanic, which earned a huge $145 million in China in 2012. But industry insiders are hard-pressed to come up with a single example of a film that has been widely embraced by audiences after flopping, undergoing changes, and trying to open again. ("Films are among the most perishable of products — a one-shot thing," an analyst told The Hollywood Reporter in the wake of Asura's meltdown.)

Unlike Asura, which features a boldly original story set in a mythical realm based on Buddhist mythology, Kung Food was a big-screen take on an established piece of IP. The Kung Food television series, produced by the same Yi Animation in Guangzhou, has been broadcast on 120 Chinese satellite and terrestrial TV channels, including flagships like CCTV Children, Golden Eagle TV, and Kaku Children, as well as on leading online platforms iQiyi, Youku and Tencent Video.

Like the TV series, the film version follows the adventures of Super Bao, an innocent and passionate steamed bun who goes through untold hardships in a battle to save the world from flavorless food. Yi Animation had naturally hoped that affection for the established character would translate into big-screen success. 

International film buyers and sellers may remember the project from the 2016 American Film Market in Los Angeles, where Yi Animation erected an enormous inflatable sushi roll character from the film outside the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica.