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Hollywood’s Greatest Wall

The fastest-growing movie market of this decade has been China. But projections about its future — and the decisions that Hollywood has made to take advantage, like the Matt Damon vehicle ‘The Great Wall’ — may have been shortsighted.

(Getty Images/Universal Pictures/Legendary Entertainment/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Universal Pictures/Legendary Entertainment/Ringer illustration)

China is under siege. It is shortly after the turn of the first millennium, and hurtling toward the Great Wall with a fury are several thousand green-skinned, green-blooded reptilian monsters. According to legend, these creatures — an unholy and cosmic manifestation of greed — are surging with a mission: to breach the last line of defense between the vast wilderness from whence they came and the lavish empire of China. Behind the wall lies the imperial court of the Song dynasty, enormous wealth, and a new future. Manning the wall are hundreds of gifted soldiers — countrymen and women with extraordinary training, gymnastic ability, and an expert strategy. Also, Matt Damon is there. Monsters fight humans. Humanity hangs in the balance. Blood is spilt. Honor is redeemed.

This is, roughly, the story of the new movie The Great Wall, which was released stateside Friday. It is also, in its strange way, a perfect metaphor for how the American movie industry has acted toward China in recent times, like a rampaging beast questing for prosperity on the other side of the wall. The Great Wall was financed and produced as a collaboration among four enterprises: the U.S.-based, Chinese-owned Legendary Entertainment; the Chinese-based production house Le Vision Pictures; longtime American film producer Charles Roven’s company, Atlas Entertainment; and the state-owned China Film Group. This sort of binational, multi-corporate, world-blanketing, blockbuster moviemaking plan is becoming de rigeur. The reason for that is clear:

All data compiled from boxofficemojo.com
All data compiled from boxofficemojo.com

That is a rising tide lifting a sinking boat. In the past few years, China has experienced unprecedented box office success. Conversely, things have been less stable or predictable in the United States. Streaming services, smartphones, and a thrashing political climate have diminished the primacy of movies. There has been, in the past decade, enormous anxiety about the state of the business, largely focused on the hollowing out of the industry’s “middle” — the modestly budgeted mainstream picture (rom-coms; star-driven comedies; thrillers) — in favor of a Mike D’Antoni–esque plan of action. Today, Hollywood is focused on deep 3s (big-ticket 3-D action films based on preexisting intellectual property, animated kids’ movies) and high-percentage close-range shots (micro-moneyed horror, demographically targeted comedy, boutique drama). In the decade that preceded this one, it was not uncommon to hear a movie star’s bankability overseas discussed casually in the trades, Entertainment Weekly, or box office reports. Think of all those globetrotting Tom Cruise press tours. Over time, the power of stardom has waned in favor of IP, but the necessity of international might hasn’t changed at all — it has only become more vital to Hollywood’s bottom line. The Great Wall is a kind of summation of five years of shifting priorities, marshaling all the forces of modern movie production as well as some of its tropes — notably, a white male lead with a proven international track record (Damon), a director familiar with working on a big canvas (China’s Oscar-nominated Zhang Yimou), extended action sequences, snarling monsters, and a wisecracking sidekick (Game of Thrones’ Pedro Pascal).

The Great Wall was released in China last December to strong but not outrageous success — it is already the 20th-highest-grossing movie in Chinese history, raking in 1.17 billion yuan, or approximately $170 million, in less than three months. But this is misleading, and not just because The Great Wall cost more than $150 million to produce, before marketing costs are factored in. It’s because China has been a major movie market for only about seven years, when the country (which comprises 1.35 billion people) flocked to James Cameron’s Avatar, and in the process spiked the yearly box office gross by 61 percent over the previous year. In the ensuing years, hundreds of theaters have been built, and the nation has fallen in love with, even become consumed by, the movies. This naturally kick-started a wave of American corporate interest, and also a torrent of conglomerate strategizing by the major studios and production companies working to conquer China.

This hound-dogging for yuan has taken on many forms. For preexisting properties, studios have begun dropping Chinese performers of note into roles they likely would not have been pursued for otherwise. The Wall Street Journal chronicled this trend last year, citing the addition of recognizable Chinese actors to the casts of films like X-Men: Days of Future Past and Now You See Me 2, the latter of which quadrupled the Chinese box office of the original, in part because of the presence of Taiwanese performer Jay Chou in the cast. “If you can work [the roles] into the story line organically, it makes the movie bigger and more global,” Lora Kennedy, executive vice president of casting at Warner Bros., told the Journal. Two of this year’s highest-grossing American movies in China — Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and xXx: The Return of Xander Cage — prominently feature much-loved Chinese actors. Donnie Yen and Kris Wu show up in xXx, and Yen steals the show in Rogue One. The movie turns on their characters, and audiences in China are turning toward them.

Jing Tian (Getty Images)
Jing Tian (Getty Images)

One of the Chinese-born stars of The Great Wall, 28-year-old actress Jing Tian, has become a handpicked representative in these cross-nation productions. After swashbuckling deranged beasts with Matt Damon, she will appear in two more Legendary Entertainment prospective blockbusters: Kong: Skull Island, out next month, and 2018’s Pacific Rim: Uprising. That Legendary has identified her as a culture-straddling avatar makes sense — she is quite literally Damon’s interpreter in The Great Wall, as well as his chief adversary and love interest. She speaks English, can tango with a green screen, and matches wits with Will Hunting. She has the range.

Now is when we’ll learn if Legendary has the same flexibility as Jing. The production house was founded in 2000 by Thomas Tull and is best known for cofinancing films like The Dark Knight and Jurassic World to great success. Last year, it was purchased by Dalian Wanda, the largest property developer in the world, not to mention the owner of AMC Theatres, the largest movie theater chain on earth. The purchase of Legendary is the most pivotal acquisition in recent Chinese movie history, a kind of reflexive power move. After years of accepting American product, Wanda’s chairman and founder Wang Jianlin — the wealthiest man in China — fully bought his way into Hollywood in 2016.

Wang Jianlin (Getty Images)
Wang Jianlin (Getty Images)

Almost exactly one year after his company was bought by Wang for $3.5 billion, Tull stepped down as chairman in a move many perceived to be something closer to a push from Wang. (Tull, notably, first conceived of The Great Wall with the writer Max Brooks.) Wanda CEO Jack Gao is temporarily at the helm now seeking a replacement for Tull. Whether the modest reception to The Great Wall in China and tepid tracking for it here in the States was a factor is not clear. While paying for hits from Christopher Nolan burnished the company’s résumé, the movies it produced outright — nonstarters like Seventh Son, Blackhat, and Krampus — have been something less than, well, legendary. The company’s failures made it vulnerable in a competitive market, and after a one-year stay, Tull was gone, with a billion dollars to keep him warm at night.

What does all this corpo-movie Stratego mean? It isn’t hard to see the road map for Wanda’s incursion into America. This has been a carefully executed plan. It was just 40 months ago that the company contributed $20 million to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Soon after, stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman appeared in Qingdao to celebrate Wanda’s plans for a multibillion-dollar headlong dive into movie financing. This is a coup, of sorts. Wang owns theaters, production, distribution, IP, and stars. He is, in a sense, remaking himself into Louis B. Mayer in real time. This model — a robber baron in ringmaster’s clothing — has long since been abandoned by Hollywood. But if this is indeed China’s Roaring Twenties, Wang needs his Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. So along comes The Great Wall, his test balloon for a new international American cinema.

“To me, whitewashing was when Chuck Connors played Geronimo,” Matt Damon said in October, responding to accusations of perpetrating a “white savior” trend in movies. “There are far more nuanced versions of it and I do try to be sensitive to that, but [The Great Wall costar] Pedro Pascal called me and goes, ‘Yeah, we are guilty of whitewashing. We all know only the Chinese defended the wall against the monster attack.’”

Integrating American culture into the Chinese film business, and vice versa, has created a typical clash of vision. The cliché American portrayal of heroism — swaggering, slick, rebellious — is not always consonant with the version China serves, which is often organized around duty and history. Damon, who is no stranger to vocal outcry about privilege in Hollywood, is right that The Great Wall is a goofy monster movie with more jokes and self-awareness than the marketing indicates. But actress Constance Wu was also right when she criticized the movie for proffering a “racist myth” of white saviorhood. From City of Joy to Snow Falling on Cedars to The Last Samurai, the notion of one white hero who can save a weaker, imperiled Asian community has persisted in Hollywood. But this film — in part a China-funded production — is something new.

Last year, Marvel came under similar fire for casting Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, a character that is an old man of Asian descent in the comics mythology. The outcry was vigorous and led to a bizarre correspondence between Swinton and comedian Margaret Cho. Doctor Strange, of course, is also fictional fluff. But it belies a friction in the cinematic partnerships between the U.S. and China.

“The last two movies I had come out were The Martian and Jason Bourne, and both of those posters are my face and my name and they did really well,” Damon said this month when linking the controversy over his role in The Great Wall to his face appearing so prominently in the first poster. “… I’ll be interested [when] people see the movie and realize that the whole idea was that it’s an East-meets-West coproduction.”

This debate tends to drive artists into cross purposes, riling social media wars while ignoring the larger power structures that devise these productions. Swinton is an actress hired for a part, and Doctor Strange is a valuable piece of entertainment that one of the largest businesses in the modern world serves to millions across every platform at its disposal. The culpability is not equitable, even though it’s obvious that artists should be thoughtful about the creative and business choices they make. No matter their recognizability or star wattage, organizations like Legendary Entertainment and the China Film Group are the most powerful actors in the movie business.

The Great Wall feels like two desperate industries teaming up, wary of the long-term viability of independent operation. But what if China doesn’t need the United States or its white saviors to make movies successful? As recently as a year ago, that started to feel true. According to The Wall Street Journal, “ticket sales for the first half of 2016 show[ed] a trend that has Hollywood worried: Imported movies accounted for 46.9 percent of ticket sales for those six months, compared with last year’s 53.5 percent. More Chinese movies are driving Chinese consumers to the multiplex, ratcheting up the need for Hollywood to find new ways to get them into seats.”

Ten years ago, six of the 10 highest-grossing films in China were produced by American studios, full stop. Last year, that was true of just two movies: Zootopia and Captain America: Civil War, both of which were born of Disney, a company that has a complex relationship to China (to Wang Jianlin, too). Increasingly, there are more coproductions between Chinese and American forces.

All data compiled from boxofficemojo.com
All data compiled from boxofficemojo.com

But the greatest increases were driven by movies solely produced in China for largely Chinese audiences. Consider The Mermaid. Have you seen it? It played about 100 theaters in America last February, earning little more than $3 million stateside. In China, it’s the biggest hit in its box office history, a Titanic-esque conqueror that amassed more than $400 million in less than two weeks of release. It sits at a $554 million worldwide gross today. The movie — a comic special-effects fantasia about a community of merpeople threatened by an eco-unfriendly developer — comes from Stephen Chow, who American audiences may recognize from his films Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. For years, Chow — along with another Hong Kong performer, Jackie Chan, and Chinese-born Jet Li — engaged in an American crossover, often combining antic action and balletic slapstick alongside American actors. In recent years, as China’s box office has ballooned (and trade agreements between Hong Kong and China have eased) those performers have focused completely on their audiences at home.

“The Chinese love their culture, and they love to see it onscreen,” Bill Borden, a consulting producer on The Mermaid, told The Hollywood Reporter last year. “That’s why Stephen is so popular: He has a million little jokes and funny nuances in his movies that you just won’t get if you’re not Chinese. To continue to work in China in a big way, you’re going to have to be culturally sensitive.”

It’s true, The Mermaid may look strange to American eyes. It certainly doesn’t present itself with the pomp and circumstance of a Star Wars or Marvel event — it isn’t self-serious, and its visual effects are often a little slapdash. Unlike the bloated Captain America movies, and like The Great Wall, its run time is right around 100 minutes. The differences reveal what would be obvious to most people but can be lost on American film producers: not all people want the same thing. Many of the high-level trends — animation, spectacle, ecstatic battle sequences — translate in any country. Just look at the massive international success of Zootopia — who doesn’t love anthropomorphic animal detectives? But there are nuances.

Warcraft, which was cofinanced by American and Chinese interests, was considered one of the biggest bombs at the U.S. box offices last year. In China, it pulled in $221 million, third best in the country. China’s 2015 box office champ, Furious 7, gets a sequel, The Fate of the Furious, here and abroad this spring. Few franchises have been as savvy (or cynical, depending on your perspective) about uniting a diverse, international cast. Along with its core crew, Furious 7 featured Tony Jaa, the explosive Thai martial artist; Benin-born Djimon Hounsou; Israeli actress (and DC’s Wonder Woman) Gal Gadot; Bollywood performer Ali Fazal; and good ol’ Kurt Russell. Nothing is left to chance in these films. They are all things to all markets.

That’s because they’re too important. Turns out China isn’t growing as fast as Hollywood had hoped. In fact, China’s box office has been in a slump so significant that if it were happening in the U.S. it’d be the only thing we’d read about in the trades. Last year, The Wall Street Journal learned, Chinese regulators raised the quota on foreign films released in the country to at least 39 in 2016, up from 34. This is theoretically good for China and the United States. Historically, China has resisted allowing too much American product into its country. But it can be seen as the first tremor in an otherwise smooth, furiously paced growth period. China’s film market dropped heavily after The Mermaid’s triumph. After years spent by Hollywood studios strategizing against the booming Chinese market — green-lighting films that take many years to produce — and native Chinese production ramping up, things officially slowed in 2016. In a big way.

“China’s slowdown in box office growth means it is no longer expected to top the U.S. as the world’s biggest cinema market in 2017, which seemed likely after last year’s sharp uptick,” according to the Journal. The number of theaters in the country is still growing — by nearly 25 percent last year. The number of U.S. movies opening in China is on the upswing. But movie ticket revenue growth was up by only 3.7 percent last year, after annual average growth of 35 percent in recent years. That’s a scary downward trend that has a spidering effect on Hollywood and the entire moviemaking world.

Why did this happen? Any number of reasons, none of which can be identified as a sole force. Maybe there was a down year, creatively. Perhaps the Fast and Furious–sized hole accounts for it. Anecdotally, Chinese moviegoers have complained about the quality of the stories they’ve been served. And perhaps, like some American movie lovers, they’ve grown weary of spectacle. But more likely, this was simply a period of completely unsustainable growth. American and Chinese financiers bet that China, with four times the population of the U.S., would be the biggest movie market in the world. But maybe it can’t. Maybe it peaked. It’s not yet clear.

So now we enter a period of unknowability. China had a rousing New Year holiday weekend at the box office, thanks in part to Chow’s new movie, Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back. (Another effects-laden Chinese production you’ll have a hard time seeing in America.) Two weeks later, the B.O.’s steady slide commenced once more.

And what to make of The Great Wall, a great experiment larded with great expectations that is perhaps an even greater and more overweening metaphor for the relationship between America and China than anything that’s come before it? It’s just a movie, but it’s also a movie, one of our biggest-ticket exports. The Great Wall stands to make somewhere between $15 million and $25 million in its opening week in America. Is that a failure, if it has earned $225 million across the rest of the world? Probably not. Is anything lost by Matt Damon spending his capital to grow internationally? Maybe practically, for fans waiting on Rounders 2, but these sorts of career choices also allow Damon to produce smaller films, like last year’s Manchester by the Sea, which is nominated for six Oscars at next week’s Academy Awards ceremony.

The stakes are clearer when you remove creativity from this conversation. Every single major studio in Hollywood has a fiscal connection to China, even with its slowed-down box office. As companies like Wanda and billionaires like Wang Jianlin enter the American movie business and China’s movie economy slowly yearns for more and more American product, there is a kind of snake-eating-its-tail quality to the relationship. If American movies have Chinese influence and Chinese movies have American stars, it sets the stage for a kind of binational movie duopoly we’ve never seen before.

In America, The Great Wall is perceived, broadly, as culturally insensitive and, more specifically, as culturally irrelevant. But American moviemakers need The Great Wall, at least to find out whether the markets need each other. That will go a long way in determining the kind of movies we get to see. If Matt Damon’s Chinese-savior act goes over better than expected in this country, expect a lot more green-skinned monsters on the horizon.