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As Matt Damon scales ‘The Great Wall,’ China is building a bridge to Hollywood

Matt Damon’s upcoming fantasy epic The Great Wall is being touted as the biggest production in China’s filmmaking history. With an estimated budget of $160 million that could rival a Hollywood tentpole, The Great Wall may well become the standard-bearer for an expected influx of joint China-U.S. co-productions.

The first English-language film by Zhang Yimou — the renowned Chinese auteur behind Hero and The House of Flying Daggers The Great Wall is a mash-up between the director’s richly colorful epics, and what Damon described as a “creature feature.” From the little we’ve gleaned from the film’s teasers, the fantasy narrative in The Great Wall proposes that the titular monument was built to keep out a horde of invading monsters.

Damon, whose star power is viewed as integral to the film’s overseas success, has been the focus of its publicity outside of China — and not all of it good. The choice to cast Damon has inevitably created its fair share of controversy, with accusations of whitewashing (and criticism of the film’s perceived perpetuation of the white savior trope) dogging The Great Wall in the U.S.

The film and its star exemplify the precarious nature of the burgeoning relationship between China and Hollywood, which is changing film production — and creating a new breed of international stars.

Matt the Martian

American film stars carry even more power in China than they do in Hollywood. Chinese cinema-goers have almost salvaged domestic bombs such as Terminator Genisys and The Last Witch Hunter due to the pulling power of stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Vin Diesel.

Damon has also benefitted from an adapting Chinese audience that has grown more sophisticated thanks to an increase in film distribution. Last year, the mainland’s movie-going market grew an astounding 48.7 percent, hitting a record of $6.8 billion (44 billion Yuan). To satisfy demand, more theaters are being built in suburban and rural areas; in 2015, 15 new screens opened every day in China. By late 2017, the country is predicted to overtake the U.S. to become the biggest film market in the world.

The burgeoning relationship between China and Hollywood is changing film production and creating a new breed of international stars.

This year has had its misfires. There have been domestic failures, with a number of local films struggling to find an audience. Meanwhile, China’s homegrown record-shattering hit The Mermaid became the latest casualty of distributor apathy in the U.S.

To buck this trend, China is looking toward Hollywood, whose productions currently occupy five slots on this year’s list of the top 10 highest-grossing films at the Chinese box office — including global juggernauts Zootopia and Captain America: Civil War. Hollywood’s success is all the more remarkable in light of China’s quota on foreign films (currently restricted to just 34 releases per year).

Hollywood has long been lampooned for pandering to China, whether cutting scenes to bypass its strict censors or — in the case of Transformers: Age of Extinction — shooting large segments in the country. Now China has adopted the strategy, with a focus on hiring American acting talent. This form of pandering was on display in Dragon Blade, a historical action film that saw Adrien Brody and John Cusack cast alongside Jackie Chan, and in Yimou’s The Flowers of War, a sweeping melodrama starring Christian Bale. Damon’s appearance in The Great Wall is the latest example of China tapping into Hollywood talent to gain a foothold overseas.

Damon’s near-silent turn as the eponymous hero in this summer’s Jason Bourne resonated with Chinese audiences accustomed to seeing all-action stars, such as Schwarzenegger and Diesel, at their local multiplex. However, it was his role as a lone spaceman in last fall’s The Martian that surprisingly made a lasting impression.

Ridley Scott’s tale of an astronaut stranded on the red planet was a global success, but its humorous tone meant it was a tougher sell abroad, where comedy can often be lost in translation. Nonetheless, Chinese film fans turned up in droves to see the film, catapulting it to the top of the box office with a solid $50 million opening weekend.

It helped that the film had a China-U.S. space cooperation subplot. (Shortly after its release, a senior Chinese official claimed the film was proof that America wanted to work with China’s space agency.) And even as The Martian was taking the middle kingdom by storm, Damon was busy fighting CGI monsters atop a fake wall erected at the country’s biggest studio in Qingdao, China.

Walls and bridges

China’s unstoppable push into Hollywood relies on a two-prong strategy: co-production and distribution. The former can be evidenced in the investment deals being struck by Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group (which owns Hollywood studio Legendary Entertainment, and its Chinese offshoot Legendary East — one of the main financers of The Great Wall).

Wanda’s chairman Wang Jianlin has already amassed a massive distribution network that spans the U.S. (courtesy of his acquisition of cinema chain AMC Entertainment Holdings) and China (Wanda Cinemas). Filmed at Wanda’s massive studio in Qingdao, The Great Wall could potentially benefit from Wang’s empire.

By late 2017, China is predicted to overtake the U.S. to become the biggest film market in the world.

Unlike the aforementioned Chinese films that pandered to U.S. audiences, The Great Wall represents a new filmmaking model, described by the film’s producer Charles Roven as “an East meets West blend.”

Beyond the casting of Damon, the film includes other foreign actors, such as Willem Dafoe and Pedro Pascal (star of the hit Netflix show Narcos). Additionally, the film’s team of writers reads like a who’s who of overseas talent, including World War Z scribe Max Brooks and Tony Gilroy, the man behind several entries in the Bourne series. For its domestic audience, there are familiar names such as Andy Lau and rising stars Tian Jeng and Eddie Peng.

The model represented by The Great Wall poses another opportunity. The state-approved production is set to receive a prominent release date and is not subject to the quota on foreign films. Consequently, much is riding on its success.

On his recent trip to the U.S., Wang announced a 40-percent subsidy related to production costs for overseas filmmakers, in conjunction with the Qingdao regional government. Speaking to a room filled with Hollywood patrons, the Chinese entrepreneur urged producers to follow in the footsteps of The Great Wall and shoot their films at his $8 billion dollar studio on China’s east coast. “This is an opportunity for Hollywood, not a competition,” stated Wang. Damon is acting as an ambassador of sorts for this new era of cooperation, even narrating an accompanying promotional video shown at the event.

The financial partnerships Wang is forging — alongside his investment in the infrastructure that will act as the foundation of a globalized industry — are already having an impact. Universal and Lionsgate are confirmed to shoot a number of upcoming films at Wang’s Movie Metropolis studio, including Pacific Rim 2 and Godzilla 2.

Film-craft

Not everyone is pleased about China’s vested interests in Hollywood.

Earlier this year, 16 U.S. congressmen signed a letter urging greater scrutiny of Chinese investment in the U.S. film industry. The lawmakers are worried that increasing Chinese influence via state-linked companies such as Wanda will lead to modified American productions meant to suit Chinese interests.

Until now, it was believed that China would have a hands-off approach to films produced in the country (or co-financed by Chinese media conglomerates), but that may be changing. On his recent trip to the U.S., Wang offered some guidance to Hollywood filmmakers: “You cannot try to make money in the Chinese market and disregard the Chinese tastes,” said the entrepreneur.

The China-U.S. partnership could arguably result in more diversity onscreen without shedding its mass appeal.

Wanda’s Legendary Entertainment is the first Hollywood studio to heed Wang’s guidance, shaping its CGI-heavy productions to appeal to a global audience. In general, this strategy has proved popular (Jurassic World and Godzilla were both major hits for the company), but is far from indestructible. For proof, look no further than Warcraft — a video game adaptation that broke records in China (thanks to the game’s popularity in the country) and went on to become the country’s eighth highest-grossing film of all time.

The U.S. was an entirely different story where, by most accounts, Warcraft was a major flop.

The goal is to create what Chinese business magnate and fellow Hollywood investor Jack Ma calls “premium global content.” It’s a risky strategy that, at its worst, could produce homogenous content that shies away from cultural plurality. If that does turn out to be the case, American audiences simply won’t turn up.

Fortunately, cable networks and digital streaming services already offer plenty of alternatives — meaning if U.S. cinema-goers don’t like what they’re offered, they’ll stay at home.

The issue of diversity further illustrates the U.S.-China divide. Despite generating much debate in America — through social media campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite and #WhitewashedOut — Chinese audiences didn’t bat an eye at Damon’s casting in The Great Wall.

In theory, there is no reason diversity cannot be part of a global model of filmmaking. A film like The Great Wall — with its massive marketing budget and large-scale distribution — could boost diversity by exposing American audiences to more Chinese characters. If successful, it could result in more actors, both from the Chinese and American side, attaining crossover status.

Wang claims Wanda is looking to “learn” from Hollywood before it gets actively involved in the creative process. If that’s the case, it cannot ignore (and is likely monitoring) the Disney formula.

The world’s biggest studio is a veritable hit-maker, thanks to its Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar properties. The company’s slate is also growing ever more diverse, with the upcoming Marvel entry Black Panther boasting a predominantly black cast and a black filmmaker behind the camera in Ryan Coogler. Disney also recently released Queen of Katwe — a film intentionally cast with actors that have a direct connection to the region it represents: Africa.

If handled with care, the China-U.S. partnership could result in more diversity onscreen without shedding its mass appeal.

China has already embraced American talent in The Great Wall. Now we must wait and see if Hollywood does the same. Having Damon in its corner certainly makes for a convincing argument.