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China’s first $100 million film is a breathtaking failure

Adam Epstein
asura movie

China’s “most expensive movie ever made” is one of the biggest flops the world has ever seen.

Asura, an epic fantasy film with a $113 million (755 million yuan) budget from financiers including Jack Ma’s Alibaba Pictures, was pulled from Chinese cinemas after its opening weekend, when it made just over $7 million (49 million yuan), the South China Morning Post reported. A representative for Zhenjian Film, one of the film’s co-producers, said they were planning to make changes to the film and release it again.

It’s virtually unheard of in Hollywood for a movie to get yanked from theaters so quickly. Several American films have been pulled from theaters after their second weeks (films typically run for about a month, if even moderately successful), but going dark after a single weekend is the mark of a truly spectacular failure.

If Asura fails to make more money, its staggering $106 million loss would be among the worst of all time. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, which lost $125 million, is considered to be the biggest flop ever. A close analog to Asura in the United States is the legendary disaster The Adventures of Pluto Nash, a sci-fi comedy starring Eddie Murphy that grossed $7 million on its reported $100 million budget.

Based on Buddhist mythology, Asura tells the story of a shepherd (popular Chinese actor Leo Wu) whose mission is to protect the mythical desire realm from an attempted coup. The film’s producers hoped it would launch a major fantasy franchise akin to The Lord of the Rings, according to the Hollywood Reporter. A publicity still for the film (seen above) looks more like two people dressing up as Khal Drogo and Khaleesi from Game of Thrones for Halloween.

In a post on Chinese social-media platform Weibo, the film’s producers blamed the abysmal box office showing on sabotage, alleging that trolls flooded mobile-ticketing platform Maoyan with negative reviews. Maoyan, which is backed by Alibaba rival Tencent, has between a 30% and 40% market share, analysts say. Ratings for Asura are much higher on the Alibaba-owned ticketing service Tao Piaopiao.

While morbid audience scores may have played a part in the film’s failure, it’s likely that poor marketing and unenthusiastic fan tracking contributed as well. Asura also opened against strong competition, including the comedy-drama Dying to Survive, which made $69 million last weekend and has grossed over $350 million total.

Many of the worst flops of all time are films similar to Asura—big-budget fantasy or sci-fi films that aren’t tied to popular franchises or characters, and come across as knock-offs of more successful movies.

While China is in the midst of overtaking North America as the world’s largest film market, it’s also apparently copying Hollywood’s penchant for bad investments.


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