Universal’s Play for China Gets Real with ‘The Great Wall’ (2017)

[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]hen I was a kid, there was no greater form of entertainment than the movie. When you went to the movie theater, the filmmakers had complete control over your experience. The characters and stories were larger than life and truly transported audiences to another time and place. I can still remember marveling at a pre-screening demonstration of surround sound and thinking that no other entertainment experience could rival the almighty movie. When I was a kid, that was probably true. The internet wasn’t in every home back then either.

These days, the movie industry has a lot more competition. Back in 2011, I wrote:

In the last two decades home entertainment has progressed by leaps and bounds with above average consumers able to own very respectable home theater systems. Even if the average high credit-rated consumer only owns a high definition TV and a Blu-ray or DVD player, sometimes that’s enough to keep them home, resulting in a greater number of below average consumers per capita filling movie theater seats, exacerbating the experience. Furthermore, the high value of home entertainment should not be underestimated. The clarity and bonus features on Blu-ray discs with an HDTV are simply amazing, especially when high refresh rates can make footage look almost tangible. The introduction of HDTVs and Blu-ray players with 3-D capabilities should have movie theaters further quaking in their boots.

Video games aren’t doing movie theaters any favors either. Not only are MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft, acting as huge free-timesinks, but even innocuous first-person shooters are keeping more butts on couches longer with their carrot-dangling achievement systems. Plus, video games have always strived to replicate the movie experience, and modern games have done it, one-upping actual cinema by creating functional interactive movies.

The rental market is another force, sucking value from movie theaters. There are just too many ways to enjoy a vast selection of cinema at home. Drive down to the store and pick up some movies. Subscribe to limitless movies by mail. Stream limitless movies online. Today’s smartphones even allow owners to rent movies and watch them via their phones. It’s also worth lumping the thriving piracy community into this group, too.

Fast-forward to today and we now have smartphone apps that are more popular than porn. US movie box offices cannot hope to compete with that kind of distraction, which is why the last decade or so has seen fewer Hollywood movies released in theaters. Less films, more impact. That makes sense. But it makes even more sense to create cinema that has a global appeal to minimize the risk from domestic box office returns. That means placating China, one of the biggest markets in the world with roughly 40K movie theaters.

And if we look at recent films, we can see how the profit motive has affected the stories that Hollywood tells. 2012’s Red Dawn changed the villains from China to North Korea in post-production. Transformers: Age of Extinction spent a lot of time showcasing China and Chinese products and pop-stars. Even Batman: The Dark Knight found a way to write in an extended sequence in China. More recently, watching Independence Day: Resurgence, one of the prominent protagonists is a Chinese fighter pilot, representing China. If audiences were sick of formulas and agendas before, then it’s about to get a lot worse.

Unfortunately, getting a film accepted in China is notoriously difficult. As I wrote at Gamecrate:

Foreign media is highly regulated in China, limiting the amount of foreign films to 30 per year. One must assume that this includes not just Hollywood blockbusters, but independent films from all over the world. Furthermore, foreign films do not have any say on their release dates in China, unlike in the US where studios can target major holidays or long weekends and, at the very least, not schedule a release on the same day as another film’s opening. According to Hollywood insiders, China has been known to double- or triple-date foreign films in order to protect the performance of local films.

Then, after overcoming those obstacles, foreign films only get to keep 25% of their sales when all is said and done. So why go through all of this trouble if the reward is so small? The answer is broken down into two reasons. First, some money is better than no money. Second, if a studio can find a way to circumvent the Chinese bureaucracy, then it just might have a guaranteed return out of the Chinese market.

Universal might have a special “in” in the form of Legendary Pictures which was bought by Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group in January 2016. It just so happens that Wanda also owns roughly 18% of the movie theaters in China, which solves the matter of not getting enough screens showing Universal’s films at favorable times. But that alone probably won’t be enough to net the kind of returns a studio is looking for. Films need to speak to the Chinese culture.

This is where Universal Pictures is definitely making a play for the Chinese market. Universal released Warcraft, which was not a good movie by all accounts, this writer included. However, it over-performed in China for various reasons, one being that the video game World of Warcraft is hugely popular in that country. However, while I couldn’t understand why the acting was so stilted, surface, and on-the-nose at the time (I chalked it up to just bad acting), I suspect now that perhaps Chinese audiences might appreciate those kinds of performances.

Universal’s recent release of its trailer for The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon supports my suspicion that the studio is pushing hard to make China a reliable revenue stream. We have another Legendary Pictures production that features mythical beasts set during a time when warfare was fought with martial weapons. It’s aligned with Warcraft except swapping out the Western cast for stalwart Chinese. In fact, Matt Damon seems more like a concession to American audiences than anything else. And his chopsocky delivery (at least from the few lines in the trailer) will definitely invoke thoughts of old kung fu movies. Granted, this is just one trailer, but it doesn’t feel like a Hollywood movie – more like a Chinese movie trying to appeal to the secondary market of the US.

When Warcraft made as much as it did in China, Jackie Chan had this to say as reported by the Hollywood Reporter:

“Warcraft made 600 million RMB in two days — this has scared the Americans,” Chan said. “If we can make a film that earns 10 billion, then people from all over the world who study film will learn Chinese, instead of us learning English,” he added.

If Universal’s gambit pans out, then Chan might be right.