Caixin
Dec 16, 2016 12:02 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Expectations Extend Far, Wide for The Great Wall

A scene from the movie The Great Wall features (from left) Jing Tian, Matt Damon, Andy Lau and Chen Xuedong. With a cost of $150 million, The Great Wall is the most expensive movie ever filmed in China. Photo: Visual China
A scene from the movie The Great Wall features (from left) Jing Tian, Matt Damon, Andy Lau and Chen Xuedong. With a cost of $150 million, The Great Wall is the most expensive movie ever filmed in China. Photo: Visual China

(Beijing) — Contrary to popular belief, the Great Wall of China was built to resist attacks from bloodthirsty beasts, not barbarian invaders from the north — at least according to the film The Great Wall, the most expensive China-U.S. co-production to date, set to hit cinemas in China on Friday.

The $150 million historical fantasy, produced by U.S. company Legendary Entertainment, a wholly owned subsidiary of Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, started filming in January. The action-packed monster flick needs to devour nearly 3 billion yuan ($434 million) in box office in order to break even, based on the general rule in Chinese film circles that allots one-third of ticketing revenue to production companies.

Three of China's major film and entertainment proponents are rooting for the film, with an all-star cast that includes Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal from Game of Thrones, and Andy Lau. The project was helmed by Zhang Yimou, whose name in China is on par with Steven Spielberg in the West.

Zhang is an award-winning film maker famous for historical oppression themed films, including Raise the Red Lantern and To Live. Later in his career, he shifted to aesthetic martial-arts dramas such as Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

The film's potential to draw audiences across continents has also raised expectations that it will be a new model for China-Hollywood collaboration.

People familiar with the matter say that Wanda has set the earnings bar at 1.5 billion yuan, and is counting on The Great Wall, the company's final production of the year, to bring the company as close as possible to its 9 billion yuan annual box office target. So far, Wanda is still around 3 billion yuan short of this target, sources say.

The state film administration is also counting on the film to give China's 2016 box office numbers one final boost before the year closes. Sources say The Great Wall was initially scheduled for release in 2017, but Chinese authorities insisted that it reach domestic screens in 2016 to amend for the lean box office year, during which growth in ticket sales dropped to the slowest since 2008. Universal Pictures, a co-producer, is holding back the U.S. release until Feb. 17, and hopes audience enthusiasm whipped up for over a month in other markets could help promote the film in the U.S.

A record breaking box-office would also be a strong tonic for cash-strapped LeEco, which has invested an unknown amount in the film through its subsidiary Le Vision Pictures.

"If the film does well, it will certainly be a shot in the arm for LeEco," said Song Ziwen, chief editor of China Film News. "The amount it actually makes is irrelevant. It will still be a long-awaited shot in the arm to spur investor confidence."

Created by American storywriters, the film was intended to appeal to a global audience from the start, "and only happened to have Chinese themes," said Peter Loehr, CEO of Legendary Pictures affiliate Legendary East.

Though set in China's Song dynasty (960-1279), 80% of the dialogue in the film is English, as it banks on popularity in North America. Legendary appears to have sufficient faith in the film's performance overseas. "If everyone else in the world does more (box office) than China, it's great. If China does more, great, that's even better," said Loehr in an interview last year, assured of the film's equal chances of success in China and abroad.

Chinese critics, however, disagree. Song believes that The Great Wall, despite its Western cast and production crew, is essentially still a Chinese film.

"It's a sheep in wolf's clothing. Zhang Yimou is not Ang Lee, and there will be cultural discounts — the dialogue, albeit English, will not make sense to Western viewers, and the action is very Oriental, with lots of leaping and flying, not the heavy thuds and thrashes that Western viewers prefer," he said.

The film set out to reap the best of both worlds with mercenaries fighting alongside Chinese troops to slay swarms of green reptilian beasts. But it may end up falling short of expectations on both sides.

Indeed, at a news briefing this week, director Zhang acknowledged that the film is no masterpiece. "Don't expect too much, just sit back and relax, and treat it like a Hollywood popcorn flick," he said.

Contact reporter April Ma (fangjingma@caixin.com)

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