China’s First Homegrown Sci-Fi Film Struggles to Market

  • Obama, Zuckerberg have read book, but no film until 2017
  • Getting CGI right could be key for first Chinese sci-fi film
  • Delay may have caused layoffs in marketing department

(Anne Petersen—Flickr/Creative Commons)

President Obama and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have already read the book, but they will have to wait until next year to catch the motion picture adaptation of The Three Body Problem (三体), one of China’s most hotly anticipated films.

As a book, the sci-fi story took China by storm with its depiction of a surreal virtual reality world mixed in with the brutalities of the Cultural Revolution. The highly original story even saw Liu Cixin become the first Asian author to win the Hugo Award.

The success of the story soon prompted Liu to adapt it into not just a film, but also a video game, with Liu becoming both “Art Director of the movie and Cloud Architect of the game,” according to a press release in December.

That same announcement said the film would be released in July 2016. But with only a couple of weeks to go, there has yet to be a trailer or any other sign the film will make a deadline that many local sci-fi fans and industry insiders doubted it ever would.

Since shooting wrapped up in August 2015, the film’s post-production process has been less than smooth, with high-level personnel changes and a wholesale replacement of the CGI team, according to several local media reports and social media updates from key players.

While the details are still murky, and contradictory behind-the-scenes accounts play out in the media, there have been enough problems to prompt author Liu Cixin to tell local media the film’s release has been postponed till 2017.

After initial local trade press reports of the resignation of Kong Ergou, CEO of Yoozoo Pictures and executive producer on the film, the executive took to social media to deny the charge and clear up the reasons for the delay.

Kong confirmed the delay, but said it was because the post-production budget had increased and they had higher standards for the CGI.

“As the first sci-fi in China, we want to do our best to achieve the best possible visual effects,” he wrote.

Sci-fi, though increasingly popular in China, is seen only in films, television and Internet entertainment imported from overseas. China’s strict censorship of homegrown content leaves little room for plot points not grounded in fact.

Kong said that he had switched from CEO to executive director a year earlier but he also took the opportunity to promote a new company he had created called “Rexue Yoozoo” (热血游族). It’s unclear whether the new company is related to Yoozoo Pictures.

China Film Insider repeatedly contacted Yoozoo Pictures to confirm Kong’s version of events, but the company’s representatives did not reply.

An employee at one of the visual effects companies connected to the film told China Film Insider that the delay in the film’s release was due to a disagreement over funds between director Zhang Fanfan and his producers.

Given the global success of the book, hopes are high that the sci-fi story will become a rare thing in the Chinese film industry—a breakout movie with worldwide appeal.

But such a result is unlikely for a Chinese sci-fi film if the special effects aren’t up to a global standard.

“We hope the movie will trigger a huge transformation in the whole Chinese movie market,” Lin QI, CEO of Yoozoo Pictures, said in November. “The entire movie is expected to contain more than 1,700 special effect shots.”

On June 17, Yoozoo Pictures released a statement via the official The Three Body Problem Weibo account which said the new CGI team was made up of top American, Korean, German, and Chinese teams working in tandem, including the high-profile visual effect company Pixomondo.

Some reports claim the film’s marketing department has been slashed as a result of the delay. While the film scrambles to get its visual effects right, gripes from anonymous insiders continue to leak out into the press.

“We originally planned to jointly market The Three Body Problem with 20th  Century Fox’s Independence Day: Resurgence,” one insider said in a social media post that later was deleted. “The film will hit the screen for sure, but now we just don’t know when exactly.”

—Additional reporting Kelly Li