Legendary/Universal’s The Great Wall won’t scale the hoped-for box office heights its partners had eyed on the mega China-U.S. co-production. Just how great the losses are is up for debate, but they start at about $70 million. Wanda-owned Legendary has myriad partners in the mix including China Film Group and Le Vision Pictures on the reported $150M-budgeted fantasy. Universal, which has rights outside China, was in for roughly 20% — and is looking at a less than $10M loss itself. But the proverbial buck doesn’t stop there.
This film was also seen as a prime experiment in marrying East and West to mine for global box office. And while the postmortems come together, two much lower-budgeted non co-pro pics with international casts and smart China marketing — Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and xXx: Return Of Xander Cage — have Middle Kingdom turnstiles spinning. With that in mind, let’s look at what went wrong and what went right on The Great Wall — and consider the future for such co-productions and other combinations in a world where China, a market of 1.4B people, cannot be ignored.
Some in the industry think the move to attempt a picture like The Great Wall was ballsy, even if it ultimately cost too much money and was poorly executed. Others think it was a feathered fish from the outset. But many agree these kinds of swings are not going away. The financial fallout won’t be devastating to any of the partners, and while Great Wall comes as Legendary co-founder Thomas Tull recently exited the company, various sources say his departure was not tied to the film’s performance. Wanda, which bought Legendary for $3.5B in January 2016, also took pains to stress that.
The end formula of an award-winning Chinese director with global appeal, Zhang Yimou, and global star Matt Damon seemed like a potentially prosperous combination for the long-in-development project. Add into the mix a number of Chinese names and the film was designed to strike a chord both at home and abroad — but mostly in China. The story centers on the building and defense of the titular landmark and incorporates the ancient legend of the Taotie monsters as an elite force makes a last stand for humanity. Damon plays a mercenary who gets stuck on the wrong side of the Wall and assists the Chinese in battle.
When it was first released in China in December it received a mixed response to say the least; there were accusations that social media adversely and unfairly affected the film. Now with a score of 35% on Rotten Tomatoes, the critical take appears uniform.
The movie has made $171M in China which most agree is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, any time a movie rises above $100M — and particularly last year when box office growth slowed to a snail’s pace in the Middle Kingdom — it’s cause for some celebration. Still, the studios were eyeing $200M locally.
Offshore, the movie has opened in many cases at No 1 demonstrating that there’s interest in seeing the spectacle. However legs have been shaky. And, the North American opening fizzled at just $18.1M over Presidents Day weekend. The box office through Sunday is $266.2M international and $37.25M domestically; it will probably leg out to about $40M there. Global box office through Sunday was $301M.
Has failing to reach break-even deterred others from attempting to mix the cultures in the future? Not likely. “As an experiment in the ongoing process of making movies for world consumption, you’re still going to do it,” says one executive. “Legendary will make other movies with worldly casts and budgets and likely some will be made in China,” this person speculates.
Another film business exec suggests, “The problem that keeps happening and is probably going to continue to keep happening is when you try to make a movie for both markets, you end up making a movie for neither market. Granted, most people see this as a Chinese film versus a Hollywood film. And because it was a little bit off, people feel it’s strange and write it off and reject it.”
Still, this person contends Great Wall is “not a cautionary tale. Any movie that makes nearly $200M in one market is not a failure. It didn’t have legs because of the negative press, but it hung in there in China more than people expected… It was an interesting experiment. Everyone lost money but in terms of going forward as a potential guide or lesson in how you make movies for both markets, I don’t think it should stop people from trying again.”
In order to qualify as a China/U.S. co-production, which ups the PROC revenue share to about 40% from the typical 25% on direct imports, there have to be a certain number of Chinese elements and that’s where these films can stumble. Notably, Wanda Chairman Wang Jianlin has cautioned the studios that films need to have more Chinese elements to appeal to local audiences.
But one Hollywood exec thinks Great Wall went too far. “This was such a Chinese subject matter, but with a western protagonist, which makes it a serious challenge. Matt Damon comes in to save the Chinese people, number one. So if you’re Chinese, you think why do you need Matt Damon? And from an American perspective, it’s just like, ‘Oh, the Great Wall, that’s not for me.’ It’s unbelievable how parochial people are, that’s how Americans tend to perceive anything slightly foreign to them.”
Legendary and Universal’s Warcraft, while not a co-production like Great Wall, was seen as something of a game-changer last summer; a sign that reliable China revenue will help studios cover downside risk for pricey global-minded tentpoles that can lead to painful red ink and write downs when they flop.
That film clicked as Legendary tapped into a perfect storm of strategic partners working with a piece of culturally resonant IP and a key Middle Kingdom release date. It was the No. 3 film of the year in China with $221M at the box office. In international markets outside China, where Universal handled, the poorly-reviewed movie nevertheless grossed $165M. In North America, it tallied up just $47M. But with those outsize China grosses, it made folks take notice.
The next big potential China/U.S. breakout could be Warner Bros’ Meg, starring Jason Statham (films are not granted co-pro status until after they are completed). Despite the fact that it really could use a new title — or at least a subtitle explaining its about a pre-historic shark returned to wreak havoc on the Chinese coastline — its prospects looks differently promising. WB’s China-based Flagship Entertainment is making Meg with local outfit Gravity. Statham is an actor who is liked internationally and domestically — and he’s adored in China. Local star Li Bingbing is also in the cast.
“Meg looks like it has more potential to crossover,” says a person unrelated to the film. “There’s Chinese history to the story, but there’s also Jason Statham. That’s a good idea from a Chinese perspective. It might not do a ton in North America, but we are all interested in sharks.”
Another recent trend has been to slot Chinese actors into Hollywood movies. Notably, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story featured Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen in what felt like truly organic roles. The film grossed just over $69M, respectable but a figure still hindered by the lack of history the franchise has with the Middle Kingdom.
The recent box office success of Resident Evil: The Final Chapter ($40M prod cost/$115M China gross/$239M WW) and xXx: Return Of Xander Cage ($85M prod cost/$156M China gross/$332M WW) should give pause to partners mounting movies with weighty pricetags that rely too heavily on a fickle market’s tastes. xXx, the first film to fall under Paramount’s $1B partnership with Huahua Media and Shanghai Film Group, also features Yen who has been heavily promoted in the marketing — and Vin Diesel’s participation is key to its success. The last Fast & Furious movie remains the top Hollywood grosser ever in the market and there are a lot of eyes on Furious 8 which some believe will be a litmus test for the health of China’s box office in 2017.