The Great Wall dominated China’s box office in its opening weekend — but will it be enough for the film to succeed?
Polarizing Chinese moviegoers on its opening weekend, director Zhang Yimou’s US$150 million Hollywood-style blockbuster The Great Wall (长城) grossed RMB 470 million ($67.5 million) including five hours of advanced screenings on Thursday evening.
The Great Wall’s debut was on par with this summer’s most commercially successful local film, Time Raiders (盗墓笔记), which pulled in RMB 476 million on its opening weekend in August on the way to an RMB 1 billion finish.
A more apt comparison, however, would be to last year’s local blockbuster Mojin: The Lost Legend (寻龙诀), which opened in the same pre-Christmas frame. The tomb-raiding pic, budgeted at just $37 million with the backing of China’s three largest production companies Wanda, Enlight Pictures, and Huayi Brothers, smashed records with an RMB 601 million ($95.4 million) three-day debut. Mojin went on to gross RMB 1.37 billion ($255.7 million) as the seventh highest-grossing film of 2015.
In that light and given its unprecedented pre-release hype, The Great Wall’s opening weekend should be seen as a disappointment.
The aggregate critical score for The Great Wall from Maoyan, China’s leading online ticketing app, sits at a lowly 5/10 from 35 professional critics, while audience ratings were polarized. Users of Douban, which has a more discerning cross-section of Chinese movie fans, loudly voiced their disapproval, slamming the film with 5.4/10 stars from 63,000 user ratings. However, Maoyan’s general audience was less harsh, bestowing The Great Wall with 8.4/10 from 210,000 users. (It should be noted that Maoyan’s ratings are inflated and even a rating of 8.4 is lower than most films have on the site.)
Some critics of The Great Wall pummeled director Zhang, claiming he watered down Chinese cultural elements while pandering to international audiences, although this was also a criticism leveled at his earlier, artier films. Others came to Zhang’s defense, instead placing the blame on a bloated production where it was nearly impossible to exercise control with too many hands in the pot.
There was nearly universal bafflement, however, at the inclusion of Jing Tian (景甜), an untested 28-year-old actress, whose inexpressive close-ups dominated The Great Wall’s 104-minute runtime.
The predominantly negative word of mouth will boil down to a curtailed run, in which The Great Wall will struggle to even double its three-day opening. As subsidized ticket prices return to normal this week and in subsequent weekends, demand will plummet. The Great Wall will most likely finish between RMB 900 million – 1 billion ($145 million). That range depending on how Jackie Chan’s Railroad Tigers is received next weekend (Pre-sales suggest a weaker than expected debut).
The Great Wall utterly dominated China’s box office this weekend, accounting for two-thirds of the total business, which meant there was little room for competition.
The Wasted Times (罗曼蒂克消亡史), a gangster film set during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, debuted in a distant second place with RMB 65.3 million ($9.4 million), apparently confusing moviegoers with its convoluted plot. The underperformance should also help The Great Wall secure more screens next weekend than originally anticipated.
In third place, director Mel Gibson’s World War II film Hacksaw Ridge continued its surprising run in China, grossing RMB 56.5 million ($8.1 million) for an 11-day RMB 241 million total ($34.7 million). Ticket sales were down just 43 percent from last weekend, owing to strong word of mouth.
Coming up next weekend in wide release in time for Christmas is the aforementioned Railroad Tigers (铁道飞虎) and the Wong Kar-Wai-produced See You Tomorrow (摆渡人). CFI will have its usual box office preview on Thursday.