China and Hollywood test blockbuster formula. Box office windfall?

'The Great Wall' being filmed now near Beijing is a litmus test for US-China joint film projects. The Chinese box office is No. 2 globally, behind the US. 

Andy Wong/AP
Chinese actress Jing Tian (r.) speaks next to director Zhang Yimou, actor Matt Damon, and Hong Kong movie star Andy Lau during a press conference for their movie 'The Great Wall' held at a hotel in Beijing earlier this month.

Matt Damon has long been one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. But in China, even he admits that fans have more interest in homegrown actors like Lu Han, a 25-year-old teenage heartthrob.

“It’s a little overwhelming when someone like Lu Han shows up,” Mr. Damon said a press conference earlier this month for the upcoming film, “The Great Wall.”

“I think the first night before we started shooting there were something like 400 flower arrangements,” he added, pointing out that they were for Mr. Lu and not him. “It took up the entire hallway.”

“The Great Wall” is the latest – and with a budget of $150 million, the biggest – attempt at bridging the lucrative gap between the world’s two largest movie box offices. With expectations in the industry running high, the movie is being seen as a litmus test for whether joint US-China blockbusters can pay off.

On the line are billions of dollars in untapped revenue for a struggling Hollywood, and long-sought international recognition for China’s ever-expanding film industry. “The Great Wall” is the largest-ever such co-production, a designation that exempts it from China’s strict import quota on foreign films and entitles its foreign partners to a bigger share of the box-office revenue. 

'Jurassic World' a major hit

With North American ticket sales in a slump, Hollywood filmmakers are eager to crack into China’s booming movie market. Ticket sales in China brought in $3.3 billion the first half of the year, up nearly 50 percent from the same period in 2014, according to Artisan Gateway, a Shanghai-based film industry consulting group.

Rance Pow, president of Artisan Gateway, said in an email that this year’s box office growth has been China’s highest in five years. 

Summer blockbusters like “Furious 7” and “Jurassic World” have been major hits across the country, leading import films to account for 53 percent of this year’s box office total. But for American studios, the challenge lies in adding the right amount of Chinese elements – including actors, locations, and cultural symbols – to Hollywood’s time-tested formula.

“A little homework goes a long ways,” says Janet Yang, an American film producer who splits her time between Los Angeles and Beijing.
“The more time you spend in China the more you realize how Chinese it really is. Just because a Starbucks there doesn’t mean it’s the same as everywhere else."

Damon’s anecdote highlights one of many pitfalls that marred previous attempts at making at cross-cultural hits: misplaced attention on American stars. Critics of Hollywood say its films have too often used China as a mere backdrop for the likes of Damon, neglecting to include the kind of local talent that could increase a film’s appeal to Chinese moviegoers.

“Chinese audiences are less likely to stomach that than they once were,” says Jonathan Landreth, the managing editor of the online magazine China File and a former freelance media reporter who covered China from 2004 to 2012.

“There are many Chinese actors that can give Matt Damon a run for his money in the home market."

“The Great Wall” has no shortage of Chinese stars, including Mr. Lu and veteran Hong Kong actor Andy Lau. It’s also the first English-language movie by Zhang Yimou, one of China's best-known directors dating to his simple elegiac films of small town Chinese life. In recent years, he has directed action films like the Kung Fu drama "House of Flying Daggers," and ''Hero," and the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

What little has been disclosed about the movie reveals that it focuses on a group of elite warriors who use the Great Wall as a weapon to combat otherworldly creatures. It’s due for global release in November 2016.

'Make it unique'

“These kinds of movies are all produced by Hollywood,” Mr. Zhang said at the press conference earlier this month, referring to films involving monsters. He explained, without elaborating, that his job was to “present information about Chinese culture and make it unique."

While Chinese moviegoers have shown a penchant for science fiction, rarely are such movies filmed in China – let alone at a place as historically and culturally significant as the Great Wall. How plot and setting mesh in “The Great Wall” is one of its most highly anticipated aspects.

“The biggest challenge is to make sure that everyone understands the film,” Zhang said. “I cannot just consider how Chinese people think about the movie. I have to think about how young people all over the world think about it.”

Matt Damon aside, Hollywood’s largest mark on the film may be its propensity for monsters and skilled special effects. Official co-productions require China or a Chinese story to be central to the plot. With that in mind, Peter Shiao, the CEO of Orb Media Group, an Asian-American production company, says “The Great Wall” is likely to face its toughest test overseas.

“I would be very surprised if this movie doesn’t come close to grossing $100 or $200 million in China,” says Mr. Shiao, who’s followed its production. “How it performs outside of China is the big question mark.”

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