China studios mull over reliance on A-listers

Actress Fan Bingbing has vanished from public view after she became embroiled in June in a scandal about movie stars under-reporting their earnings.
Actress Fan Bingbing has vanished from public view after she became embroiled in June in a scandal about movie stars under-reporting their earnings. PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI • For film executives in China, the disappearance of top celebrity Fan Bingbing (above) is a reminder of the perils of show business in the most-regulated major entertainment market in the world, where the Chinese government weighs in on everything from the appropriateness of costumes to the salaries of movie stars.

The 36-year-old actress has vanished from public view after she became embroiled in June in a scandal about movie stars under-reporting their earnings.

The episode is also prompting Chinese studios to wean off a reliance on A-list stars to drive big hits, a shift Hollywood made years ago.

"The crackdown will force studios to focus on making quality content rather than simply relying on the star-driven formula," said Mr Leiger Yang, founding partner at Beijing-based Landmark Capital, which invests in entertainment start-ups and studios.

Top Chinese studios, including Huayi Brothers Media and Zhejiang Huace Film & TV, have said in annual reports that higher celebrity pay is threatening profit margins.

Industry trends in China show stellar casts are no longer sure bets.

Just before Dying To Survive (2018), a low-budget Chinese comedy-drama without big stars became the summer smash hit, Asura (2018), the big-budget, star-studded epic on mythology, bombed at the box office and was withdrawn immediately after its opening weekend.

Television streaming is also drawing fans to dramas without big stars.

Story Of Yanxi Palace, a 70-episode drama co-produced by and streamed on iQiyi, China's Netflix, emerged as a surprising summer hit with a mostly young, lesser-known cast.

 

A Qing dynasty tale of scheming concubines, the drama has been streamed more than 15 billion times, according to iQiyi.

The success of the drama "brings a new turning point and new opportunities to the industry that has been pressured by excessive compensation for celebrities", iQiyi chief executive officer Gong Yu said in Beijing on Aug 26 at an event to celebrate the drama's conclusion.

"The industry should stop overcompensating celebrities in low-quality productions just because they have huge fan bases."

Mr Gong's streaming platform was among a group of film and television companies that issued a joint statement on Aug 10 saying they would work together to resist overpaying top talent and devote more resources to better productions.

Over time, this will lead to a reduction in shoddy productions and give the industry an opportunity to focus on quality, said Dr Yin Hong, a professor of television and film studies at Tsinghua University.

Only about half of the 800 or so films made by Chinese studios last year made it to a cinema and among those 400, fewer than a quarter sold at least 100 million yuan (S$20 million) in tickets. That is in a market where the threshold for a hit is considered about 1 billion yuan in sales.

"The industry is undergoing a lot of pain right now," said Dr Yin. "But if dealt with properly, it will be a good opportunity."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2018, with the headline 'China studios mull over reliance on A-listers'. Print Edition | Subscribe