‘Great Wall’ May Crumble, But More China-U.S. Films Are Coming

  • Forecasts point to challenges for Wanda-Universal joint effort
  • Rules for Chinese co-productions complicate creative process

Matt Damon in 'Great Wall.'

Source: Universal Studios

When Matt Damon bursts onto U.S. theater screens this weekend, in a fantasy epic fighting monsters along China’s Great Wall, he’s going to get a tougher reception than usual from movie fans.

The film from Chinese director Zhang Yimou will probably generate just $17.5 million in its U.S. debut over the four-day President’s Day weekend and $40 million through its entire U.S. theatrical run, according to Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOfficePro.com. That’s far short of what Damon brought in as Jason Bourne or “The Martian.”

As the costliest Chinese-American co-production ever, “The Great Wall” from Dalian Wanda Group Co.’s Legendary unit and Universal Pictures marks a big effort to win over fans from the two biggest markets -- and a potential misfire that failed to bridge cultural differences. While China’s domestic movie industry has grown exponentially in recent years and is challenging U.S. dominance in sales, its filmmakers have yet to churn out global hits.

“This is setting the table for the future,” said Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co. “If this is the first attempt it’s OK that they didn’t knock it out of the park.”

With a production budget of $150 million, “The Great Wall” will need to generate about $400 million in ticket revenue to break even at the box office -- taking into account the share of sales theaters keep and millions spent marketing the picture, according to Robbins. It’s collected $224.5 million so far, mostly in China.

“The Great Wall” tells the story of an army battling rapacious beasts called Tao Tie (TAO TEE-YAY), which symbolize greed in Chinese folklore. The effects-heavy film, with huge set pieces and elaborate costumes, is set in an alternate ancient China featuring Damon as a warrior and ace archer searching for a new explosive known as “black powder.” He’s captured and joins an order of Chinese fighters defending the wall against the monsters.

Growing Ties

Hollywood studios such as Comcast Corp.’s Universal are teaming up with Chinese media in a variety of ways, including film financing, marketing and more recently local co-productions that let them keep a bigger share of ticket revenue in China and lower movie-making costs.

Next year, Warner Bros. will release “Meg,” -- pairing Chinese star Li Bingbing with Jason Statham and Ruby Rose -- as part of a venture with China Media Capital. The Chinese government approved a record 89 co-productions last year, of which 10 are with U.S. studios, according to state media. And with Wanda building what it bills as the world’s largest movie studio in China, more such projects are on the way.

For “The Great Wall,” the filmmakers worked to develop a picture that could bridge the tastes of two nations.

American Written

“The script was written by Americans, and I provided suggestions from a Chinese perspective,” Zhang said in the production notes for his first English-language film. “It was revised and polished, trying to make it acceptable and likable to both Westerners and Chinese. That was the hardest job.”

The picture also employed top Hollywood talent behind the camera, including Industrial Light & Magic, the effects team behind “Star Wars,” and Tony Gilroy, the screenwriter from “Bourne.” It was filmed on Wanda’s Qingdao Movie Metropolis, the biggest film lot in the world, under Zhang, whose credits include “House of Flying Daggers” and “Raise the Red Lantern.”

“The Great Wall” was the brainchild of Thomas Tull, the founder of Legendary Entertainment and co-producer of hits like “The Dark Knight” and “Godzilla.” He sold the company for $3.5 billion last year to Wanda and its billionaire Chairman Wang Jianlin, who also controls the AMC theater chain, the largest U.S. circuit. Wanda, which plans to offer U.S. filmmakers subsidies and direct flights from Los Angeles to attract talent, declined to comment on the movie.

Domestic Slowdown

The Chinese release of the movie coincided with a slowdown in the domestic box office, depressing its haul. In the U.S, it faces competition from “John Wick: Chapter 2,” featuring Keanu Reeves, and an animated Lego Batman film.

On the popular aggregator website Rottentomatoes.com, the reception was mostly negative, with just 32 percent of critics having positive reviews.

“It may be a landmark film for the Chinese and U.S. film industries, but it’s hardly a creative breakthrough for anyone involved,” Clarence Tsui wrote in the Hollywood Reporter.

The critical responses speak to the challenges ahead for U.S. and Chinese filmmakers looking to succeed in both markets. “The Great Wall” is largely in English but the Chinese actors often speak in Mandarin, with subtitles. Another issue is a lack of internationally well known Chinese actors, said Bock.

“Once that happens you will see the synergy, I think, work a lot better,” he said.

Filmmakers also have to navigate the complicated rules for Chinese co-productions, including greater use of domestic talent and more local investment, according to Stanley Rosen, a University of Southern California political science professor who studies the relationship between the mainland and the U.S. film industry.

“The problem is more from the Chinese side,” he said. “When you go out of your way to make a film that is going to be epic, with capital letters, and try to check off all the boxes, you are basically doing something by a formula. There is no creative stuff going on.”

The goal of the filmmakers is to generate more sales outside of China than at home and eventually turn a small profit, according to Zhang Zhao, chief executive officer at Le Vision Pictures, one of the Chinese distributors.

“Filmmakers in both countries need to understand the audience tastes in each others’ territory,” Zhang said in a Jan. 24 interview in Beijing. “Over time, through practices like this, we’ll be able to find the methodology for co-productions.”