On Screen China: Will ‘The Great Wall’ Stand Tall?

It’s The Great Wall‘s weekend to win, but the real test comes afterwards, when it reviews and word-of-mouth will be needed to sustain and push it towards the RMB 1 billion mark.

The Great Wall (长城), director Zhang Yimou’s highly anticipated co-produced behemoth from Le Vision Pictures and Legendary East, roars into Chinese cinemas Thursday night for five hours of advanced screenings ahead of its nationwide release on Friday.

Reportedly budgeted at US$150 million and in the works for seven long years, The Great Wall isn’t just another Chinese blockbuster aimed at a purely domestic audience. Both Hollywood and China are hoping this epic monster movie imbued with Chinese historical and cultural flourishes can finally stumble upon the secret formula that has eluded countless Sino-US co-productions that have all failed to attract audiences on both sides of the world.

The stakes are extremely high. Box office success in China removes some of the pressure from The Great Wall’s North American debut on February 17, a release that has already been mired in a whitewashing controversy and seems destined for a forgettable run. Therefore, anything less than RMB 1 billion ($145 million) domestically will be seen as a major disappointment and will place the future of mega-budgeted co-productions on uncertain ground; whether or not that would actually be a positive development will be reserved for a later discussion.

So will The Great Wall be a “great leap forward” in the evolution of Hollywood and China’s fledgling cinematic relationship or will the two sides need to go back to the drawing board once again for yet another stab in the dark?

The Great Wall (长城)

China Distribution – Le Vision Pictures (乐视影业)
US Distribution – Universal Pictures (February 17, 2017)

Director Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) is an obvious choice to bridge the cinematic divide between the world’s two largest film markets. An auteur once heralded at international film festivals for quieter, art-house leaning films such as Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern, Zhang brought about the age of the Chinese action blockbuster with Hero (2002), followed later by the similarly commercial House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006).

At home, Hero (RMB 250 million) held the title of highest-grossing Chinese film in history, only to be supplanted by Curse of the Golden Flower (RMB 291 million) four years later. In North America, all three Zhang action films rank among the top 50 highest-grossing foreign language films of all-time, with Hero ($53.7 million) placing third.

And while Zhang’s box office clout may have faded somewhat in recent years — 2014’s Coming Home grossed RMB 291 million ($46 million) in China and just $377,000 in North America — producers have fleshed out The Great Wall cast with not only a major international box office draw in Matt Damon, but also several Chinese “little fresh meats,” young male actors whose devoted followers count into the tens of millions.

In an age where mobile ticketing and social media are king and young moviegoers drive box office numbers, Baidu’s online ticketing portal Nuomi has established a new feature ranking The Great Wall performers by how many tickets their self-professed fans have purchased. While far from a scientific cross-section of Chinese moviegoers, followers of Lu Han (Time Raiders, Disney’s Chinese ambassador for Star Wars) and Wang Junkai of the boyband TFBOYS have snapped up more than half of the total 150,000 tickets sold for The Great Wall on Nuomi. These two “fresh meats” far surpass the box office draw of Andy Lau, Matt Damon, and Zhang Yimou, according to the data.

These numbers may bode well for a strong opening weekend boosted by hordes of devout fans, but criticism from advanced screenings points to the inclusion of all these young, untested performers as a major reason The Great Wall will have little to no staying power on Chinese screens.

Moviegoers from Thursday’s advanced screenings have already loudly mocked the film online — Douban currently sits at an awful 5.8/10  — targeting their vitriol at the “fresh meats” and their complete lack of onscreen presence.

Most netizen hatred and critical consensus seems to be aimed squarely at young Jing Tian (景甜), a 28-year-old actress whose biggest credit to date was the critically panned From Vegas to Macau 3. Jing reportedly commands more onscreen time than her Chinese counterparts combined but is unable to hold her own against Damon. Adding fuel to the fire, Jing is set to star in two future Legendary productions — Kong: Skull Island and Pacific Rim: Uprising — giving netizens plenty of fodder to speculate on Jing’s powerful connections.

If word of mouth continues to plunge throughout the weekend, The Great Wall could very well be in for a rough ride. Right now, though, we still predict a solid opening weekend close to RMB 400 million ($58 million) bolstered by fans.

In subsequent weekends, Chinese moviegoers will shun The Great Wall and it will struggle to pass RMB 1 billion ($148 million). No matter how Legendary or its new owner Wanda frame it, for all its pre-release hype The Great Wall will be a major disappointment both critically and commercially and will be another huge blow to US-China co-productions.