China and Hollywood have been cinematic bed fellows for longer than you may think, and it should come as no surprise to see American stars in Chinese movies, given the rise in international co-productions in the 21st century. The fairly substantial hold China has on global box office, and its influence over Hollywood productions, becomes increasingly apparent with each passing year. This raises questions about China and the future of cinema, as well as the Chinese movie industry. No one movie sign-posted the impact of Chinese investors and cinema-goers on Hollywood, international productions, and the future of movies quite like 2016's The Great Wall.
The Great Wall had a brush with controversy with regards to whitewashing history and casting Matt Damon in what many believed to be your typical 'white savior' role. Check out Constance Wu's tweets on the subject for a fantastic and illuminating smackdown. But The Great Wall is just one example of what's to come, especially when you consider that the number of Chinese movie-goers is expected to surpass that of American film fans later this year.
It's also worth considering, in light of Wu's tweets, whether Hollywood can be accused of whitewashing in this instance, since The Great Wall was funded primarily by a Chinese company (Wanda Group), had a Chinese director (Yimou Zhang), a predominantly Chinese cast, and starred Matt Damon in a role that was never intended to be Asian. Whatever the case may be, it's certainly true that, in the United States at least, The Great Wall movie was one of many would-be blockbusters that busted no blocks.
The Great Wall didn't make much of an impact on the US box office, though there are a number of factors as to why. Lego Batman had a firm hold over audiences at the time of release, and 50 Shades Darker was making American feel super naughty. Yes, a wall made of Lego and the promise of some hard spankings stood strong against US-Chinese co-productions. You can't tear down the Lego franchise!
It also probably didn't help The Great Wall's cause that it was marketed essentially as a Chinese movie starring Matt Damon, not an international film with participation from multiple creative voices (screenwriter Tony Gilroy, for instance, is English).
Despite not doing particularly well in the United States, The Great Wall made $171 million in China, boosting its worldwide earnings to more than $330 million. Those are big numbers, but the film's producers were expecting a much bigger haul in China. When you consider that movie theaters keep around half the gross and marketing for films of this scale typically costs more than $100 million, not all is well in the world of Damon.
According to Deadline, The Great Wall stands to lose $70 million (The Hollywood Reporter puts the number at $75 million). As box office analyst Jeff Bock told The Hollywood Reporter, "There's no question but that it's a failure."
You'd be forgiven for thinking The Great Wall is a strictly Chinese movie that happened to feature a major American movie star. This in part comes down to failure of marketing, and failure of the producers to promote the film as a watershed moment of cooperation between the US and China. In fact, the movie was very much a co-production.
The Great Wall was made with hope of creating a new breed of cultural cross-pollination, in which a bicultural movie could become an international phenomenon like to Avatar or Star Wars. In the eyes of a producer, it's a no-brainer to cast Matt Damon - box office receipts show the Chinese flock to Hollywood movies, and you need a big time movie star to secure major funding for Western and/or American audiences. Damon could have been the proverbial bridge that united the Chinese and American markets and drew in the numbers both domestically and abroad.
There is a long storied history of Hollywood casting white movie stars seen as bankable in roles that could go to actors of color. This creates a catch 22 - as any producer will tell you, with very few exceptions, most of the huge movie stars in the world are white men. Most of those who aren't are white woman. And so they are cast, time and again, in these roles. Yet, if people of color aren't given the chance to star in films, how can they achieve the status required to lead a $150 million movie? Thankfully, movies like Creed, Hidden Figures, and Black Panther are working against this dogma.
From an artistic stand point, The Great Wall probably would have been fine without any white cast members. But if there's no Matt Damon, why not just make it in Chinese? And if it's in Chinese, where's the appeal to Western audiences? Yeah, okay, sure, it could've been Denzel Washington, Will Smith, or Gina Rodriguez in the lead, but - and there's no delicate way to put this - China isn't exactly friendly to black people, as evidenced by headlines like "China has an irrational fear of a 'black invasion' bringing drugs, crime, and interracial marriage."
There's another notion here to consider, the intelligence of the movie star. Or maybe the instincts, if you want to call it that. Someone with a career as long as Damon's, and with as many accolades along, isn't a moron. Movie stars who stretch a career across multiple decades understand what makes movies good, and what audience want. Damon has been in very few truly bad films. Even his most populist material, such as the Bourne movies or Ocean's 11, is good. And, lest you forget, the guy's an Oscar winning screenwriter. So if he's interested in a project, you'd be inclined to think it's at least decent, right?
In this furnace was forged the casting of Matt Damon, who was a test subject. Could the perfect marriage of Chinese and American cinema be all things to all people?
All this talk of American investors wanting a Western movie star, but Matt Damon wasn't just Hollywood's idea. China was all in, too. This using Damon as a bridge between China and America thing goes both ways. American movie stars carry a lot of weight when it comes to opening movies in China. Not so in the US - when's the last time you saw a movie advertised on the back of Chow Yun-Fat, Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung, or Michelle Yeoh? Only martial arts stars like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li hold any sway at the box office for American audiences when it comes to Chinese actors.
To return to the whitewashing point, as The Great Wall director Zhang Yimou points out, the movie is not an instance of a white actor being cast in a Chinese role, but rather a movie specifically conceived to star a Western, white movie star. To quote Yimou
“In many ways The Great Wall is the opposite of what is being suggested. For the first time, a film deeply rooted in Chinese culture, with one of the largest Chinese casts ever assembled, is being made at tentpole scale for a world audience. I believe that is a trend that should be embraced by our industry.”
If anything is crass about the film, it's the rank capitalism on display, not racist casting.
Contrasting views of movie stars between China and the US might go some way to explaining the contrasting financial performances in each country. China may love the Damons and Brad Pitts of the world, but the idea of movie star involvement getting major tentpoles greenlit in the US is long gone. Folks don’t rush to theaters to see the latest picture starring fav actors anymore. Audiences want a recognizable brand and familiar characters, hence the runaway success of anything slapped with a Star Wars logo or released by Marvel.
This brings things back to the point about Damon helping get the film greenlit for Western investors. The total production cost of The Great Wall was about $150 million. Let's say you're an American investor funding about 30 percent of the movie (most of the film was paid for by China, and it had multiple investors, so that's a big percentage). Someone comes to you and asks for $45 million, saying Matt Damon is playing the lead in monster movie from the studio that made Godzilla, directed by the guy who did of Hero and House of Flying Daggers. While movie stars alone don't get movies greenlit, who would say no to that?
Coming in with a critic's score slightly lower than Donald Trump's approval rating, The Great Wall scraped by with a 35% on the Rotten Tomatoes tomato-meter, and a 50% audience score, which is really bad, when you consider the reams of putrescence that hold four and five star ratings on Amazon. Not exactly glowing praise.
While critical lampooning this didn't hurt international box office earnings, maybe it did impact The Great Wall's domestic chances, especially considering the chaotic advertising, which gave you basically no indication of what the movie was about, other than Damon shooting arrows and jumping off the Great Wall to confront a monster of some kind.
In fact, while on the topic, blame should be placed on terrible screenwriting. In keeping with 21st century trends, The Great Wall attempts to recontextualize an ancient and well known thing rather than having an original thought. The success of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and others of that ilk must surely in part stem from the creation of a wholly original world, rather than the repurposing of a landmark. What's next, The Great Pyramids? Oh, wait. X-Men Crapocalypse already happened.
Despite the commercial and critical failure of The Great Wall, you can be damn sure there are countless parties in Hollywood, Beijing, Hong Kong, and elsewhere right at this very moment scheming on how to be the ones to succeed wildly where The Great Wall failed. It would be dangerous to write off this failure as a singular event, not the beginning of a new wave of international co-productions.