Matt Damon’s ‘The Great Wall’ tests appetite for U.S.-China moviemaking

“The Great Wall” features Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe.


In the new movie “The Great Wall,” Matt Damon helps Chinese warriors defend their country against fearsome monsters attacking the famous landmark. Now the big-budget film is testing the market for a different kind of cross-border collaboration — U.S.-China co-productions.

The $150-million movie began its global box-office assault with $67.4 million in ticket sales from its first three days in China, according to studio estimates, making it one of the biggest debuts of the year in that country. It’s a promising start for “The Great Wall,” easily the most expensive co-production to date.

But it remains to be seen whether “The Great Wall” will be the kind of global hit that producers were hoping for. Despite strong ticket sales, the film received mixed reactions from consumers, some of whom shrugged at its inclusion of teen idols and stunts atop China’s most iconic structure.


Filmgoers ranked the movie 5.4 out of 10 on, a Chinese movie-ranking platform. Some were confused by the mix of Chinese and American elements in the filmmaking, and wondered who the film was meant to attract.

“Which audience is the film targeting? Older? Younger? Chinese? Foreigners?” said Li Yi, a 29-year-old high school math teacher. “I can’t figure out who will prefer a film that is neither very Chinese nor very Western.”

The flashy colors, ancient weapons and aerobatic war scenes contributed little to the overall plot, she said. It “was a waste of time.”

Such reactions may not bode well for the film’s long-term prospects in China, where even big hits tend to suffer steep drops in attendance after they open.

However, user reviews on other sites sites were more favorable. “The Great Wall” scored an average rating of 8.5 on Alibaba Group ticketing platform Tao Piao Piao. Weibo Movie gave it a respectable 7.6 rating.

Legendary East Chief Executive Peter Loehr, who is one of four producers on the movie, said he was encouraged by the opening weekend numbers and anticipates the movie will continue to draw big audiences. He also said the reviews on Douban do not represent moviegoers’ reactions overall.


“We’re actually pretty psyched about the online rating sites,” Loehr said by phone Wednesday. “There’s a small community of really negative critics in every country… If the reaction were so negative, we wouldn’t be seeing these [box-office] numbers.”

Reviews from English-language film critics have been mixed, with negative notices from Hollywood trade publications Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, a troubling sign for its U.S. release in February.

If it works, “The Great Wall” could serve as a mold for future tie-ups between Chinese and American film companies trying to take advantage of an increasingly global entertainment business. It if flops everywhere but China, studios may need to rethink their strategy of co-producing movies.

“It will be worth learning whether the model of using Chinese resources to achieve an American style can be successful,” said Li Xun, a research fellow at the China Film Art Research Center.

Legendary East — the Asia arm of Burbank’s Legendary Entertainment — teamed with China’s LeVision Pictures, state-run China Film Group and Los Angeles-based Universal Pictures to bring the story to the big screen. Universal executives declined to comment.

To helm the project, Legendary recruited filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who is the nation’s most famous director. Damon brought his international star power as a European mercenary, bolstering a cast that includes Hong Kong legend Andy Lau and popular Chinese actress Jing Tian


However, skeptics have long questioned how the English-language production would balance its U.S. and Chinese elements to attract audiences from both hemispheres.

Legendary has a powerful backer in Wang Jianlin, the billionaire chairman of Dalian Wanda Group, which paid $3.5 billion for the production company early this year. Wanda owns China’s biggest cinema circuit and U.S. chain AMC Entertainment.

“The Great Wall” filmed at Wanda’s new Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis, a sprawling facility that Wang announced in 2013 with ambitions to create the “Hollywood of China.”

Wanda’s clout helped make Legendary’s “Warcraft” into a huge hit in China, after the expensive video game adaptation flopped in the U.S. and Canada with just $47 million. Its Chinese receipts topped $220 million.

China has previously served as a lifeline for American bombs like last year’s “Terminator: Genysis” from Paramount Pictures. The country’s growing box-office clout has fattened global business for Hollywood blockbusters like Disney-Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War.”

But China’s film industry — with the support of the local government — wants its movies to travel abroad the way that Hollywood’s exports do. For example, this year’s biggest homegrown hit, “The Mermaid,” enjoyed a stunning $526-million haul on the mainland but barely registered with audiences elsewhere.


Executives and analysts have seen co-productions as a way to bridge the gap.

“I hope there are more movies like this, and I hope I get to make more movies like this,” Loehr said. “But at the end of the day, I don’t think the audience cares if it’s a co-production. They care if it’s a good movie.”

Co-productions also offer benefits to U.S. studios looking to court China audiences and get around the government’s limits on the number of foreign films. Under a revenue-sharing agreement, only 34 foreign movies a year gain entry to the Chinese market. Co-productions also let U.S. companies get a larger percentage of box-office revenue and gain access to better release dates.

China’s box office has been in need of a hit this year. Ticket sales in the world’s most populous country have suffered a dramatic slowdown after years of rapid growth. However, a weak slate of films, a decrease in online movie ticket discounts and a crackdown on phony box-office numbers has put the brakes on the surge. Sales are expected to jump about 4% to $6.6 billion this year, according to research firm Artisan Gateway. That compares with a nearly 50% increase in 2015.

Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder

Meyers is a special correspondent. She reported from Beijing. Faughnder reported from Los Angeles.



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11:15 a.m.: This article was updated with quotes from Legendary East Chief Executive Peter Loehr, and details about additional movie rating websites.


This article was originally published at 3 a.m.