Less pandering, please.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Why China and Hollywood Don't Mix

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
Read More.
a | A

For movie moguls, it probably seemed like an irresistible idea: Pair a Hollywood star with China's most famous director, add a preposterous story about monsters attacking the most recognizable Chinese landmark, and mix in $150 million to make the magic happen. The result was "The Great Wall," the most expensive Hollywood-Chinese collaboration ever -- and a colossal cultural flop.

Despite financial backing from China's largest cinema operator, possibly the biggest marketing campaign in the country's history, and a plum holiday-weekend slot, "The Great Wall" was only the third-biggest opening of the year, lagging a Chinese rom-com and a U.S video-game film. Its $67 million weekend box office didn't even top the $95 million made last Christmas by "Mojin: The Lost Legend." Reviews were terrible, social media scorn was widespread and prospects for future ticket sales are grim.

Not even Matt Damon, the film's top star, could save the day. One online ticketing portal ranks actors by the number of tickets their self-identified fans have bought, and Damon so far ranks sixth, selling just one-fifth the tickets that Lu Han, a supporting actor in the film, is credited with.

Yet even this obscures how big a disappointment "The Great Wall" is. Its producers, and those hoping to emulate them in future projects, had much bigger ambitions. They wanted the film to serve as a model for how cross-cultural collaboration could lead to box office glory in China, the world's second-biggest movie market. As Wang Jianlin, whose company owns one of the production studios behind "The Great Wall," baldly put it: "More Chinese elements means more profits."

The problem with that approach is that audiences are apt to view "Chinese elements" as tokenism and pandering. Increasingly, China's moviegoers and news media have taken to mocking Hollywood's over-the-top efforts to insert Chinese actors and products into films -- such as "Transformers: Age of Extinction" and "Independence Day: Resurgence" -- for no other reason than to expand market share.

That's partly why audiences haven't been interested in what happens when Hollywood and China team up. In 2011, Zhang Yimou -- director of "The Great Wall" -- cast Christian Bale as the male lead in "The Flowers of War," a turgid epic about the Nanjing Massacre. Despite strong government support, the film barely broke even in China, completely flopped overseas and hasn't cracked China's 50 top-grossing films, placing well behind several American superhero movies and Chinese comedies.

"The Great Wall" has suffered from some of the same criticism, with reviewers expressing irritation at one scene featuring women beating on drums and another in which a traditional folk opera is clumsily recreated. One critic complained that the film's "Chinese content comes down to lanterns, Chinese-style armor, the Great Wall and other common symbols." Another said it shows that Zhang's career "is dead," a fairly sweeping verdict for one of China's most revered artists.

The irony is that foreign blockbusters still do fine in China. They accounted for 38 percent of its box office in 2015, even though the government allows only 34 non-Chinese films in its theaters each year. Domestic productions have also done well lately, especially gangster films, historical epics and comedies tuned to local tastes. Chinese filmgoers, as discerning and sophisticated as any, are happy to watch good Chinese films or good American ones. What they don't want to see are "Chinese elements" cynically grafted onto Western action-adventure films.

If Hollywood wants to partner with Chinese filmmakers, it should give up on awkward and patronizing co-productions. The better approach is to create an international studio in China to nurture young Chinese filmmakers and writers, and help them dream up films that will appeal to Chinese audiences. DreamWorks Animation followed this approach when it set up Oriental DreamWorks with Chinese partners in 2012. The early results -- including "Kung Fu Panda 3" -- have been both stellar and profitable. That's a durable recipe for making hits, in China and around the world.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net