NEW YORK, N.Y. – Big Hollywood hits commonly reap half or more of their box office overseas, as “Finding Dory” and “Rogue One” have done. Zhang Yimou’s “The Great Wall,” which opens Friday, will test whether that trick works both ways.
“The Great Wall,” a mostly English-language film with a Chinese director, crew and cast, stars Matt Damon as a European mercenary who finds himself caught in a battle between a Chinese army of the Song dynasty (960 -1279) and ravenous monsters on the other side of — you guessed it — the Great Wall of China.
The $150 million production is already a blockbuster at home. It premiered in China in mid-December and has made more than $225 million internationally. But there’s still a lot riding on the film, which its backers hope will pave the way for future Chinese-made films designed to wow North American audiences.
“It’s an interesting test case for how a film that originates in China, utilizes big name American stars and has a big budget, will play in North America,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at research firm comScore.
Whether is succeeds or fails is “no small thing” for those considering other films like “The Great Wall,” Dergarabedian said. “You have to show a viability of these types of films that go from East to West rather West to East,” he said.
CHINATOWN MEETS TINSELTOWN
Chinese money has been flooding into Hollywood recently. From 2000 to 2016, Chinese direct investment in U.S. entertainment firms amounted to nearly $9 billion, according to the Rhodium Group. Investment in 2016 more than doubled all investment in the previous 16 years combined.
That’s mainly due to one Chinese company — conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group — which bought the Hollywood studio Legendary Entertainment, known for the “Dark Knight” film franchise, for $3.5 billion. Legendary is the studio behind “The Great Wall.” The same group bought movie-theatre chain AMC in 2012.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros., DreamWorks Animation and Universal have linked up with state-owned enterprises and private companies such as electronics maker LeEco and internet giants Alibaba and Tencent.
“The world is changing,” Dergarabedian said. “It’s all about who has the resources and vision and point of view to get a movie like this produced.”
“The Great Wall” isn’t completely unprecedented. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Ang Lee’s 2000 martial arts saga, was funded by investors from China, the U.S. and other countries and became a huge hit in the U.S. and abroad. Other martial arts movies, including Jackie Chan vehicles, have also had crossover appeal. But those films had decidedly non-blockbuster budgets — and none featured an international star of Damon’s calibre.
“I think you will start to see a trend toward English/Chinese co-productions with Western performers paired with Chinese performers,” said Seth Shapiro, a consultant at New Amsterdam Media. These films, he suggested, will aim to draw audiences in both markets, but will be “produced largely in China and funded by China.”
Of course, there’s no guarantee that this formula will work. “The Flowers of War,” a 2011 Chinese-made film about the Japanese army’s vicious 1937 sack of Nanking, starred Christian Bale. But the movie, which was also directed by Zhang and cost $94 million to make, pulled in less than $500,000 in the U.S., according to Box Office Mojo.
“The Great Wall” also ran into a minor controversy when its trailer debuted, irking some who complained that the film was “whitewashing” Chinese culture. That term usually refers to the casting of white actors in non-white roles, a charge that’s been levied against movies such as 2016’s “Gods of Egypt,” which cast white actors as Egyptians, and 2017’s “Ghost in the Shell,” a movie based on Japanese manga that stars Scarlett Johansson instead of an Asian actress.
But that critique arguably gets “The Great Wall” backward, since Damon’s character was deliberately written as a European for both marketing and narrative reasons. The film gets a boost by featuring Damon in trailers and posters — and then also portrays his Western character learning to appreciate the order and discipline of Chinese culture.
That’s actually a key goal of the film, experts like Shapiro say. Movies like “The Great Wall” and its expected successors aim to steal a page from Hollywood by promoting Chinese traditions around the world.
“It sort of does with Chinese culture what America has been really successful doing starting in the 20th century,” Shapiro said. “You’ve got China depicted as an extremely powerful but very benevolent cultural force.”