Critics advise against scaling 'The Great Wall' – could it kill East-West collaboration?

'The Great Wall,' a Hollywood-China co-production, has received negative reviews and industry watchers are predicting it will open behind such box office holdovers as 'The LEGO Batman Movie.' 

Jasin Boland/Legendary Pictures and Universal Pictures/AP
'The Great Wall' stars Jing Tian.

The outlook for the North American premiere of “The Great Wall” isn't looking promising. 

The film is one of the most high-profile projects in a hotly watched collaboration between Hollywood and China, yet reviews so far are poor and industry experts are predicting “The Great Wall” won’t do very well at North American box offices. If the move does indeed flop in North America, that could spell bad news for the collaboration, which has been viewed as something of a test of whether films that have been designed from the ground up to play in both markets can achieve a double whammy success.

That's been an increasingly intriguing question for movie executives in Hollywood, especially as international box office returns – particularly how a movie performs in China – has become an important part of planning a film for Hollywood. For that reason, appealing to Chinese audiences has become a priority for many American filmmakers. 

The rewards for finding a formula that works for Chinese audiences can be great. In 2014, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” became the biggest-grossing movie in Chinese history (it has since been supplanted by “The Mermaid”) after the studio released a “Transformers” story that mostly took place in China. While the movie grossed more than $245 million domestically, it was able to bring in more than $858 million in foreign box office. 

And in 2015, “Furious 7,” the latest installment in the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, briefly became the highest-grossing movie ever in China. International grosses can even change a movie’s fortunes; the 2016 film “Warcraft,” for example, was viewed as having tanked in the United States, but it performed well internationally (including doing quite well in China) and so is not viewed as a complete failure. 

Chinese audiences haven’t always responded well, however, when Hollywood has made overt efforts to court them. In 2013, after Marvel Studios added new Chinese-centric scenes to its blockbuster “Iron Man 3,” IT engineer Liu Kunpeng told the Monitor, “The Chinese version treated Chinese audiences like idiots. I want to see the same version that the rest of the world sees.”

“The Great Wall” aimed to avoid such pitfalls by involving people from both nations throughout the process. The movie is a co-production between US- and China-based companies, including American media company Legendary Entertainment and the China Film Group, and features actors from American, Chinese, and Hong Kong cinema.

Still, the film may not be the best test of whether a movie can play in both the US and China, given the dismal reviews from both Chinese and American critics.

Beijing moviegoer Qi Ying told the Monitor in January, after the film was released in China, “I wasn’t that impressed” and Monitor writer Michael Holtz notes that the film received a 4.9 out of 10 score on the movie review site Douban.

“While it did manage to climb past the symbolic 1 billion renminbi ($150 million) mark over the weekend, analysts attribute its continued success to weaker-than-expected competition rather than its quality,” Mr. Holtz wrote in January following the film’s December opening in China. “Many have been unimpressed by turnout given the massive marketing push it received and the high expectations that preceded its release. The film remains far short of the $200 million box office threshold Legendary East ultimately hopes to hit in China.” 

As of Feb. 15, the film had grossed $171 million in China, still not hitting that $200 million mark. 

And so far, industry watchers seem to think American viewers won’t be won over either. The movie has been panned by critics, with Monitor film critic Peter Rainer giving the movie a C+ and writing, “There is barely a whiff of genuine transcendence in this grand-scale extravaganza.”

Now industry watchers are predicting “The Great Wall” will open behind holdover “The LEGO Batman Movie” at the American box office. Hollywood Reporter writer Pamela McClintock, in predicting that the movie will open in “the mid- to high-teen millions over the four-day holiday frame,” wrote that if that happens, it will be “a sobering start, considering ‘Great Wall’ cost $150 million to make.” 

Why wouldn’t American audiences be drawn to this project? Entertainment Weekly writer Joey Nolfi writes that “while the film is directed by Zhang Yimou, one of the most well-respected Chinese filmmakers working today, most North American ticket-buyers have likely never heard of the filmmaker, and poor critical reception for his latest offering will do little to capture their interest.” 

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan says that American audiences will fail to be drawn in because of a lack of an interesting story. 

“’The Great Wall’ is a failure of the imagination, a reliance on a god-awful core idea of a fight to the death against supernatural monsters in ancient China and a narrative where each moment is more preposterous than the last, each plot point flimsier than the one that came before,” he writes. “If ever a film was made with more money than sense, this is it.”

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