This is the story of the most expensive movie ever made

In what was supposed to be China’s response to the groundbreaking success of James Cameron’s epic Avatar, the never-before-seen 3D action-adventure fantasy Deep Empires remains a confusing but intriguing mystery. Cameron’s blockbuster film ran for fifteen years, with the Oscar-winning director beginning development on the visual spectacle in 1994. With the expectation that production would begin following the completion of his cinematic juggernaut Titanic in 1997, the filmmaker was forced to step away from his passion project when he realized that the necessary technology was not yet available to bring his vision to life.


Preparations for Avatar resumed in 2005 with an original budget of $237 million, although Fox’s commitment to the project dwindled due to inflated costs and their history with Cameron during the production of Titanic, which suffered cost overruns and delays. Despite detractors and skeptics, Avatar became the highest-grossing film upon its release in 2009, earning an unprecedented $2.8 billion worldwide and winning three Academy Awards; Cameron spent over a decade working on sequels. The success of the sci-fi film served as both inspiration and envy for the conceptualization of the potential marvel of Chinese cinema. Deep Empires, though his journey to materialization proved less than smooth.

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What are the origins of Empires of the Deep?

Storyboard of an underwater palace in Empires of the Deep
Chinese film group

The unhappy fantasy Deep Empires is the vanity project of billionaire Chinese real estate agent Jon Jiang, who not only partially financed the big-budget film, but also invented its story. The scenario finally went through 40 draft changes and took four years to write, with a total of 10 different screenwriters used; the film’s original working title was Mermaid Island. Jiang even hired James Cameron’s close friend and collaborator Randall Frakes to help develop the script.

Italian actress Monica Bellucci was originally set to play the role of Queen of the Mermaids, although she later dropped out and Sharon Stone was courted for the role. james bond Actress Olga Kurylenko was finally cast and reportedly paid $1 million for a movie that never even got released.

A cinephile, Jiang believed that his mass wealth would be more than enough to roll an epic film in the style of those crafted by some of Hollywood’s most prestigious filmmakers, namely George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. This claim would prove costly, as the production of the picture was plagued with countless issues regarding directors, casting issues, and an ever-increasing budget that caused the project to suffer greatly.

Production issues galore

Olga Kurylenko as Underwater Queen in Empires of the Deep
Chinese film group

Deep Empires received an initial budget of $50 million, which quickly skyrocketed due to Jiang’s unfamiliarity with the filmmaking process and filming issues. Businessman first hired catwoman director Pitof to helm the film, although he dropped out following disagreements with Jiang before production. Commercial and music video director Jonathan Lawrence was later brought on board for the project, who later revealed the difficulties he encountered while working on the picture; clashes between the Chinese crew and the talents supervised, frustration with Jiang’s control over casting, set and costume design, and filming locations as well as a slow filming schedule were the biggest grievances of Lawrence.

The director shot Deep Empires for five months before deciding to move on to other projects and return to Los Angeles. Lawrence reportedly left the picture because Jiang was short on money and compared his stay in China to “a black comedy”. Television director Michael French then took over as director in February 2010, with two-thirds of the film remaining to be shot. He, too, would leave just two months later after constantly clashing with Jiang, facing financial issues, and feeling the general feeling that the producers had failed the project.

A bald submarine soldier in the empires of the deep
Chinese film group

French told The Atavist magazine, “The train was off the track. They couldn’t pay the crew. They couldn’t pay the cameras. But they could add extra scenes? There was nothing they could offer that beat the prospect of going home them.” The last director associated with the doomed project was Scott Miller, who finished filming the last part of the film in late 2010.

Related: Avatar 2 Will ‘Blow People Away’, Says 20th Century Studios President

Apart from the problems of maintaining a chief filmmaker, Deep Empires had both troubling scripting and editing issues; Jon Jiang hired Steven Spielberg’s editor, three-time Oscar winner Michael Kahn, to do a pass in the editing room, but Jiang’s reluctance to collaborate came to naught in his efforts. The constant rotation of directors resulted in a muddled script, with each visionary attempting to give the script some much-needed restructuring. The film’s 2012 trailer depicts its confusing plot and unfulfilled goal, and fails to reflect its hefty $130 million budget; the cheap costumes and lackluster CGI actually didn’t rival the beauty and wonder of her opponent Avatar.

Is there a future for Empires of the Deep?

Despite boasting of a 2013 release after its trailer premiered, Deep Empires failed to find a willing distributor. In 2015, after radio silence in the entertainment industry, Jiang blamed the film’s delay on its extreme budget for reshoots and special effects and revealed that he was waiting for more investment money.

Close-up of Olga Kurylenko as Queen of the Sea in Empires of the Deep
Chinese film group

According to co-writer Randall Frakes, he attributes the failure of the film’s release to wrong screen test answers, saying, “Due to the nature of the subject matter and the original producer/writer’s concepts, which were at best confusing and at worst incomprehensible to an international audience, I did not have much hope that this film would be accepted by the general public, whether in Europe, the United States or even China.

In January 2016, the producers of Deep Empires launched a crowdfunding campaign seeking funding of one million yuan and even announced a new release date in April 2016. The campaign proved futile as efforts to raise funds were unsuccessful . Actor Steve Polites, who played the male lead role of Atlas, had signed on for a potential film trilogy. In a 2016 interview with Yahoo! News, Polites also thought money was to blame for the turbulent production, have said, “Money was a problem. Sometimes we had to put ourselves on stage and the doors of the studio were chained because someone hadn’t paid something. The actor then shared that if he ever comes out, “It has all the makings of a cult movie. I feel like every six months or every year I get a call or an email announcing me first.

A flawless legacy

A scared man reacts to two mermaids in the dark waters of the deep empires
Chinese film group

Although the eternal dreamer Jon Jiang set out to develop and create a cinematic spectacle, Deep Empires actually became a marvel but still wrong the reasons. His love of movies and incredibly deep pockets overshadowed the logical aspects of his monumental business, especially that he had no idea what a challenge he was taking on or how the entertainment industry worked. Hollywood veteran producer Mark Byers expressed, “Jon has a really good heart and the heart of a great idea, but he couldn’t give it up. He was influenced by George Lucas and James Cameron, he just hung on to the amateur stuff.

What was to be the start of an exciting and lucrative franchise on the scale of The Lord of the Rings and star wars, along with an accompanying anime series, a theme park in China, and a video game eventually became a confusing, unfulfilled $130 million fantasy. A little like Deep Empiresit’s Confusing and gloomy trailer, the fate of the film remains a mystery.

Harry Potter holding a wand.

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