Can China Expand its Beachhead in Hollywood?

A ChinaFile Conversation

With The Great Wall, a classic army vs. monsters tale, director Zhang Yimou has brought America the most expensive Chinese film ever created. The movie may be backed by a Hollywood studio and it may star no less an American icon than Matt Damon, and yet it proffers China as the source of military might and moral right. Hollywood and China’s commissars have always made for strange bedfellows, but have they finally figured out how to beget viable offspring? Will other major stars follow Damon’s example and act in films that promote Beijing’s message? Will American audiences watch them? Will Chinese? Can propaganda ever make for a real blockbuster? Or will the powers on both sides someday relent and let a director like Zhang make the kind of nuanced human dramas that made his name in the first place?—The Editors


The wait is over, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall opened in the North American market in February 2017, following its opening in China last December. As has been endlessly reported, this was intended to be more than just a movie, it was an “event,” the first serious attempt to link the two largest film markets in a co-production that had a production budget north of $150 million, starred Matt Damon, and was 80 percent in English. However, by most standard indicators, the film has failed to meet expectations, grossing under $18.5 million on its opening weekend, despite being shown on 3,326 screens, far more than any previous Chinese film.

This failure can be traced to a number of factors, which, I would argue, will make it difficult for future Chinese films or Sino-American co-productions to succeed in both markets. First, judging from the reviews, part of the problem can be traced to the hype surrounding the film’s buildup and the unrealistic expectations of those familiar with the previous efforts of director Zhang and star Damon. Accompanying the high expectations, ironically, was a wariness, even cynicism, with many critics perhaps expecting a film written by a committee that would have great visuals and special effects, but would attempt to be as culturally inoffensive as possible in order to appeal to multiple markets. Of the 161 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, only 35 percent were positive, and even those that gave it a fresh rating admitted it wasn’t “good,” but it was a “deliriously silly mess,” “enjoyable nonsense,” an absurd “hoot-and-a-half,” and what Roger Corman might have done “if he made a mega-budgeted, multinational film.”

Second, and one indication of the challenges of meeting audience demand in both markets, was the furor surrounding the casting of Matt Damon in, what some lamented, was the typical “white savior” role. Within China, no one questioned Damon’s role, which was never intended for an Asian or Asian-American actor; indeed, director Zhang was mystified by such a critique.

But there are other, more fundamental reasons why the film might not resonate with a Western—or even a Chinese—audience familiar with Hollywood blockbusters. The protagonists of Hollywood blockbusters are often cynical rebels, dismissive of established governmental authority, for example Tony Stark in the Iron Man films, the various other heroes in the Avengers series, or Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. This is of course not possible in a film about China.

In addition, beyond the joint efforts to defeat the CGI-generated enemy, none of the Chinese characters in The Great Wall show much personality or individualism, certainly no romance or, dare I say, any sexuality. In the single-minded purpose to defend the state, everything else is subordinated. The repressed sexuality in the later scenes between Jing Tian and Matt Damon oddly reminded me of dubbed North Korean films I watched in China thirty years ago, with meaningful looks among committed comrades substituting for genuine human feelings.

The Great Wall is simply a dazzlingly bad film, co-production or not. While it is spectacularly made with the director’s trademark of scale, order, color, light, and rhythm, it is nevertheless a monster film with no soul, a zombie story with no emotion, and a threadbare narrative with little plot. A Taotei-like gluttonous creature with no restraint, the film is a Sino-Hollywood co-production run amok.

Though the film cashes in on trendy fantasy drama, The Great Wall is no Game of Thrones. There is not a compelling story-world for sophisticated characters with complex arcs to dwell and grow in The Great Wall. It is a fantasy with little intricate human drama. Worse, the thin plotline is further burdened with a Chinese nationalist fantasy that displays Chinese military might and pageantry at its most excessive. Dwarfed by the gigantic Great Wall, the gunpowder crazed European mercenaries appear captivated literally and figuratively by the enormity of China and Chinese culture. They are, in time, taught a moral lesson, chiefly by the righteous Chinese female Commander, on fighting for trust and honor instead of gunpowder. The clichéd narrative fits the myth of Western barbarians being tamed and enlightened by the Chinese civilization as the Chinese commander lectures them on the benefits of patriotism and bilateral action. It is as if the entire Western Canon of medieval adventures did not exist.

I'm not sure if anybody knows what China-meets-Hollywood looks like, but in its eagerness to feed China’s bloating ego and market, Hollywood and its Chinese partners have concocted a colorfully synchronized mass devoid of genuine human touch and investment in real feelings and imagination. It is a reminder that a big budget, star actors, and excessive visual effects do not magically translate into compelling stories, Hollywood or Chinese. The Great Wall has failed to advance anybody’s power, financial or cultural.

But the adventure of Sino-Hollywood co-production will continue, given China’s massive film market, which has surpassed the North America to be the world’s largest. Whether such transnational film practices based entirely on cold market calculations can yield films of universal appeal is anybody’s guess. Though American audiences might persist in their refusal to embrace subtitled films, Sino-Hollywood co-productions can nonetheless increase the American public’s awareness of and exposure to China.

In The Great Wall, however, I see no good material for a sequel (though the studios, sadly, will most likely attempt to provide one.)

So, a message to folks in Hollywood and China who are blessed with the power to greenlight films we are allowed to see: perhaps a less pompous and more intimate human story could one day emerge when a film is not burdened with the dual tasks of carrying the torch of a national culture, and the box-office?

That is a Sino-Hollywood co-production I would like to watch.

I remember writing stories back in 2011 about the genesis of The Great Wall when I worked for Variety, stories that continued after joining The Hollywood Reporter. In those heady days, it seemed like everyone was developing a massive-budget co-production with China, and previously rational, gimlet-eyed investors rushed slates of monster movie blockbusters that would equally thrill the fanboys of Main Street and Mianyang.

We are still waiting for most of these projects, such as Marvel supremo Stan Lee’s The Annihilator or X-Men creator Tom DeSanto’s Gods. Once the euphoria of tapping into what then seemed like limitless funds wore off, producers and writers began to realize that maybe making a movie that worked in both markets was a far more challenging prospect than it looked.

The Great Wall had a tough time unspooling, starting out with Edward Zwick as director, with Hong Kong entrepreneur Kelvin Wu as co-financier in Legendary East with Thomas Tull. The budget was thereafter scaled back massively, then pumped up, Kelvin Wu was gone after the failed capital raise in Hong Kong, there were rewrites, Peter Loehr became head of Legendary East, there were the usual production difficulties and endless to-and-fro that accompanies a project of that scale.

Add to this the expectations weighing on the movie, the idea that this was The One, the film to bridge the chasm between Hollywood and China.

In 2015, the narrative about the film changed. Nobody wants to make a movie to prove a point, but that was what The Great Wall was becoming.

The underwhelming box office and reviews have made people realize that they were expecting too much.

There will still be link-ups between Hollywood and China, but the Sino-Hollywood marriage is going to be built on cash rather than creativity.

Expect fewer big movie stars taking on roles in Chinese projects. The talent input will instead be in production and financing. Chinese companies will take pieces of U.S. movies, and Hollywood studios will focus on making movies for the muscular domestic Chinese market.

Hollywood does archetypes really well—Avatar, Titanic, Transformers all outperformed in China, but there is no reason for thinking that China’s fledgling movie industry would ever be able to reciprocate.

The heavy hand of censorship means that Chinese filmmakers are always starting out at a disadvantage to their overseas competitors. They have had to make massive compromises before the project even begins.

Chinese directors complain that if they made the movies they wanted to make, they wouldn’t get a Chinese release but would be consigned to shining at film festivals overseas. But who in China wants that nowadays?

The creative disconnect abides.

After China joined the WTO in 2001, Hollywood interest in China, its market and—eventually—its movie investment money, outright mushroomed. And so did the number of Chinese showing up in Los Angeles each November for the American Film Market, the giant annual gathering of buyers and sellers. Key players in the transpacific film industry picked up the pace of their dance in spring 2012, when Xi Jinping, then China’s vice president, stopped in Los Angeles to meet, among other people, Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of DreamWorks, the makers of the sensational animated Kung Fu Panda film series. Xi, Katzenberg, and then U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, touted a pact to bring China and Hollywood closer together, to open China’s market to more movies from America and encourage co-productions.

In November 2015, the fifth annual Asia Society U.S. China Film Summit expanded to a full day of discussion and a gala evening that featured as an honoree Zhang Yimou, just then in the thick of what already was being touted as the biggest U.S.-China coproduction ever, The Great Wall. Fast forward again to February 2016, when, for the first time, more movie tickets sold for more money in China than all the movie tickets sold in North America, signaling that China would sooner, rather than later, become the largest movie market on the planet. In March 2016, Kung Fu Panda III, a U.S.-China co-production, became the highest-grossing animated film China had ever screened.

While other industries (automobiles, drugs, agriculture) and certainly other areas of U.S.-China ties (trade, diplomacy, military-to-military communication, human rights) suffer regular stifling blows, the optimism that is perhaps endemic to the culture of storytelling blooms in the U.S.-China moviemaking relationship.

Trouble is, in the U.S., storytellers from all walks of life are able to overcome high hurdles and find support to bring the tough stories about who we are as a people from script to screen and get recognized in the process—12 Years a Slave comes to mind as a recent example. Meanwhile, leading Chinese independent directors such as Jia Zhangke operate in an environment of tightening censorship in China and can only get real recognition outside their homeland.

Just like Mickey Mouse and Humphrey Bogart before him, Po the Kung Fu Panda will continue to expand the American Dream on foreign shores by telling stories unburdened by censorship. The stories work in so many countries around the world partly because they’re dreamed up by a multi-ethnic Hollywood workforce that first gathered in Southern California in the 1930s, fleeing tyranny in Europe.

Chinese film companies may well play a part in Hollywood for many years to come, but their ability to make and sell movies about China into the heartland of America (still the largest box office on the planet) will be commensurate with: A) American audiences’ willingness to read subtitles and B) Beijing’s ability to let go of control of the medium.

If Chinese filmmakers don’t feel safe telling stories about what it’s like to be Chinese today—not in some long-gone imperial court—or what it’s like to dream in Chinese, then official Beijing will continue to erode any chance of China’s movies establishing a beachhead anywhere outside China, let alone in the most creative moviemaking Mecca on the planet. Where, for instance, is the Chinese Blair Witch Project? The Chinese Forest Gump? The Chinese Avatar? Those films surely exist in the heads of filmmakers in China, but unless they who wish to make them are left to their own devices, Beijing can kiss selling its Chinese Dream to America goodbye.

As The Great Wall rolls out into theaters in North America, the search for the perfect cinematic model that will appeal to audiences both east and west continues. The box office performance of The Great Wall will certainly lead some studios to tweak their formulas and strategies when it comes to production, promotion, and distribution of future Sino-U.S. collaborations, but don't expect anyone to put on the breaks. The Chinese film industry and Hollywood are simply too mutually intertwined to go backwards. Just this week yet another major deal between these two industries was sealed as China’s Recon purchased a 51% stake in Millennium Films. This can be added to the list of other major transactions that have taken place over the past few months, such as Le Vision’s acquisition of Dichotomy Films, Alibaba’s deal with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Pictures, and Wanda’s deal with Paramount.

On screen these changes have translated to major shifts in how films are cast, leading Hollywood celebrities including Christian Bale, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Adrien Brody, and Tim Robbins to appear on screen in Chinese productions. With The Great Wall, you now add Matt Damon, Willem Defoe, and Pedro Pascal to that list. (To be fair, before The Great Wall, Defoe already appeared in Luo Yan’s Pavilion of Women, back in 2001 and Damon was of course already saved on screen by China in The Martian in 2015.) At the same time, Chinese actors such as Li Bingbing, Fan Bingbing, and Donnie Yen have become regulars playing supporting roles in top Hollywood action franchises such as xXx, X-Men, Resident Evil, Star Wars, The Expendables, and Iron Man. With ever increasing industry ties and several major ventures on the cusp of taking off—Wanda’s new mega production facility in Qingdao has yet to open and Alibaba’s foray into film has only recently begun—expect to see even more of your favorite Hollywood A-listers on screen in Chinese movies as well as more international directors (and production talent) such as Philippe Muyl and Renny Harlin helming Chinese-language films. Moviegoers can also expect to see more and more Chinese talent in Hollywood films that aspire to win over a piece of the Chinese market.

The big question is what road these future co-productions and collaborations will take. Up until now, many of the biggest films to come out of the Sino-Hollywood romance have been dominated by blockbuster conservatism. Questions such as: “What will play well with Chinese audiences?” “Will a film about x raise any red flags with the Chinese censors?” “Will casting so-and-so Chinese star in my latest action franchise film be enough to secure co-production status, or a decent take of the Chinese box office?” seem to be dominating the conversation and leading to what films get greenlit. I’m still looking forward to the day when the Sino-Hollywood romance can get past this initial “first date” stage where each side is sizing up the other and making conservative, calculated moves. Instead, I would like to imagine a new form of collaboration where both sides feel comfortable make bold, creative, and daring movies, a version of Sino-Hollywood cinema where innovation, storytelling, and the true potential of cross-cultural collaboration is realized.

At the 2017 Academy Awards, Jimmy Kimmel lambasted actor Matt Damon for taking a starring role in The Great Wall, describing the film as a “Chinese ponytail movie”… “that went on to lose $80 million.” The audience applauded thunderously. Kimmel’s comment and the response he drew underscores frustration with the co-production process. But co-productions are only one way that Hollywood studios benefit from Chinese investment. There are also the acquisitions of U.S. studios such as Legendary Entertainment, and theater chains AMC and Carmike, and Chinese investment in films that have little evident China connection, titles such as Edge of Seventeen, The Space Between Us, and Southpaw. The list of companies developing shared slate, or multi-picture, deals continues to grow: STX Entertainment and Huayi Bros., Sony Pictures and Dalian Wanda, Universal and Perfect World Pictures. Collaborations that are financially-driven expand the reach of Chinese companies in Hollywood, even if Chinese stories don’t make their way into Hollywood studio films.

While this model is becoming more pervasive, there has been backlash. In China in November, China’s Ministry of Commerce issued guidance suggesting a slowing of outbound direct investment, which will directly affect the media industries. Some analysts have argued that this is behind the slowdown in Wanda’s $1 billion acquisition of Dick Clark Productions Others say it’s the result of other financial concerns with the deal.

Just as Beijing is cracking down on foreign investment in China, U.S. lawmakers are looking at ramping up oversight of Chinese investment in Hollywood. In a September 2016 letter, Republican members of Congress urged the enforcement of rules set out by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), rules designed to prevent “control of a U.S. business by a foreign person, in order to determine the effect of such transactions on the national security of the United States,” according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. In the past month, both Democratic and Republican senators have urged an expansion of the CFIUS oversight to include economic issues. This presents a macro-level strategic challenge that has the potential slow down Chinese dealings in Hollywood’s film industry.

That being said, China’s media groups have already started to demonstrate new strategies for resiliency in this increasingly complex investment landscape. Dalian Wanda has started taking equity stakes in Hollywood films after they are produced, as in the case of Academy Award nominee Lion, bypassing the production process and instead literally buying a piece of Hollywood. Wanda CEO Wang Jianlin addressed potential threats to Chinese investment head-on. If Trump starts a trade war, he said, 20,000 Americans in his employ would be out of work.

In the face of rising tensions, dogged persistence has paid off. Despite public concerns, the oversight process only delayed Wanda’s acquisition of Carmike, a deal quietly concluded in December 2016 despite sabre rattling in Washington.

U.S.-China trade is in flux and there are myriad potential political outcomes that could stymie China’s investments in Hollywood. If China is labeled a currency manipulator, or if Trump levies a 45% tariff on China, it would severely impact China’s relationship with Hollywood. However, the growth of long-term shared investment projects, Chinese acquisitions of Hollywood firms, and the capital-driven business environment in the United States mean that it is highly likely that China’s relationship with Hollywood will survive a Matt Damon “Chinese ponytail movie.”