Empires Of The Deep: what happened to China’s Avatar beater?

After its trailer appeared last year, the $130 million fantasy film Empires Of The Deep went all quiet. Ryan wonders what happened...

Almost three years ago, a strange press conference took place in Beijing. On a stage bathed in flashing lights, women with low-body fat danced around on a stage, their dresses billowing. They wore strange, striped rubber appliances on their heads which looked a bit like shower caps. The guest of honour at the press conference was Olga Kurylenko, the actress who’d appeared in the Bond film Quantum Of Solace not long earlier.

The press conference was to promote the impending release of Empires Of The Deep – a $130 million special effects extravaganza which would mark China’s triumphant entry into blockbuster filmmaking. Bankrolled by one Jon Jiang, a real estate magnate with very deep pockets, the film was billed as a Grecian fantasy movie under the sea, with comely mermaids (hence the rubber shower caps), warriors astride giant crabs, and huge fish operated like submarines. It was to be an eastern Avatar – a 3D behemoth that would make a splash in all corners of the world.

A year before that press conference, in 2009, the makers of Empires Of The Deep began to put out casting calls for western bit-part actors to appear in their movie. Production would last for four months (between 20th November of that year and March 19th 2010), and filming would take place in Zhouzhou (Hebei Province) and Beijing. The number of extras required was oddly small (just 10 males and 15 females), and the pay relatively low (the equivalent of around £790 per month in UK money), but flights and accommodation were all paid for, and hey – you got to appear in a landmark blockbuster movie.

With production apparently moving smoothly ahead, The New York Times were invited over to Beijing in June 2010 – by which point, the film should have been in post-production. It became clear, though, that things hadn’t gone entirely according to plan. Empires Of The Deep (working title: Mermaid Island USA Vs The Plesiosaurs) was originally intended to cost a relatively sensible $50 million, before the cost soared.

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The script, it was said, had gone through 40 drafts, and had passed through the hands of no fewer than 10 Hollywood screenwriters – one of them was Randall Frakes, a long-time friend of James Cameron and co-writer of such cult movies as Hell Comes To Frogtown. The production had also burned through more than one director; the French filmmaker behind the notorious Catwoman was originally at the helm, yet he was soon replaced by Jonathan Lawrence, who directed the 1999 sci-fi movie, Dream Parlor.

According to IMDb’s rather skimpy listing for the film, Empires Of The Deep‘s most recent director was Michael French, but according to The New York Times’ story, he’d also left the production before filming had finished. He was then replaced by one Scott Miller, who looked in wonder as the crew busily sawed off the top of a gigantic palace set.

Actresses had also been a problem. Jiang originally approached Monica Bellucci and Sharon Stone for the lead role of the mermaid queen, but when they turned it down, in stepped former Bond leading lady Olga Kurylenko.

In spite of all these problems, Jiang remained upbeat, and even planned to follow the movie with videogames and a theme park. “My idea is to make movies on the biggest scale there is,” he told The New York Times. “I want to distribute movies to 160 countries. I want it to be epic.”

After that story was published, things went a bit quiet. Presumably, the film had been finished – or at least went into post-production – because Olga Kurylenko has starred in numerous movies since 2010.

Then, in October last year, the first trailer appeared. It’s possible that you’ve seen it. If you haven’t, this is it:


Now, in many ways, this looks like a remarkable film. It doesn’t, however, look like a movie that cost $130 million to make  – instead, it looks like something Roger Corman might have hurriedly put together for the Syfy Channel. Reactions to the trailer were scornful. Clearly, this was not a film that would make James Cameron fear for his position as the king of the glossy blockbuster.

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The lingering question, though, is what happened to the finished movie? Trailers are usually released as part of a gradual marketing build-up, but after it appeared just over two months ago, nothing more has been seen or heard. No posters. No teasers. No press releases.

In fact, Empires Of The Deep has done precisely the opposite: it’s retreated into itself, like a publicity black hole. An attempt to visit its official website (empiresofthedeep.com) reveals a blank space where its pages used to be. Any effort to find the contact details or websites of the production companies involved – E-Magine Studios, Rex Media or its oddly-named CGI providers Fontelysee Technology Co, Ltd – has drawn a blank, as though everyone involved has quietly packed up and gone home.

Desperate to find out more, we tried to contact the name at the foot of that casting advert posted a couple of years ago – Mr Wang Guowei. Sadly, we’ve yet to hear anything from him at the time of writing.

So what happened? Was that trailer punted out as a last-ditch attempt at securing a distributor? Was the reaction to it so ferociously derisive that its backers simply decided to cut their losses and leave the film on the shelf? 

We got in touch with writer Randall Frakes to discover whether he had any idea of what happened to China’s ertswhile deep-sea fantasy.

“I was hired to co-write an English version of the original Chinese treatment,” Mr Frakes told us via email. “That was several years ago. Although I know for a fact the film was produced, the last I heard it was still in complicated post-production.”

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According to Frakes, Empires Of The Deep could have stalled somewhere during post-production due to poor responses from test screenings. 

“Due to the nature of the subject matter and the producer/original writer’s concepts,” Frakes said, “which were at best muddled and at worst incomprehensible to an international audience, I did not hold out much hope of this film being accepted by the general public, either in Europe, the States or even in China.” 

Like us, Frakes hopes that Empires Of The Deep will one day emerge from wherever it sank, and thrill us all with its mermaids and fish fights.

“My hope, for the sake of the hundres of hard-working technicians and actors who laboured on this film,” Frakes told us, “is that I am wrong, and it will be released soon to international acclaim and box office success. One can always dream, right?”

Empires Of The Deep might not be the Avatar beater its makers had hoped for, but its giant crabs, shouting warriors and iffy effects hark back to the good old days of Doug McClure adventures like Warlords Of Atlantis – and that, for us, is an achievement in itself.

Do you know what happened to Empires Of The Deep? Were you one of those extras who appeared in the film, if so, we’d love to hear from you.

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In somewhat related news, Randall Frakes’ cult film Hell Comes To Frogtown will be out on Blu-ray in the UK soon.”Eat lead, froggies!”

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