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With 'The Great Wall' Comes Great Challenges as China's Influence in Hollywood Grows

It's being heralded as the largest U.S.-China co-production ever, but are audiences on board?
Matt Damon as William Garin in \"The Great Wall,\" directed by Zhang Yimou.
Matt Damon as William Garin in "The Great Wall," directed by Zhang Yimou.Universal Pictures

It all began with five photos.

Intended to tease what would end up becoming the largest U.S.-China co-production ever, Entertainment Weekly released the first look at "The Great Wall" last July, setting off a firestorm of criticism over the casting of Matt Damon as the apparent "hero" of China.

A trailer quickly followed but, by then, the backlash was already strong.

"Enough with the white savior complex," The Daily Beast's Marlow Stern tweeted.

From Angry Asian Man blogger Phil Yu: "Things You Can Count On: Hollywood can set a movie anywhere in the world, in any era of history, and always find a way to star a white guy."

And in a lengthy message on Twitter, actress Constance Wu blasted both the film and the industry that gave it its platform. "We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world," Wu wrote.

For Damon, the controversy has been frustrating.

"It was really based on the one sheet," Damon told NBC News. "I think people saw 'The Great Wall,' and then they saw my face and my name, and went, like, 'What the hell is this?'"

Since the film's release in China in December, early reviews have suggested that the accusations of a "white savior" storyline were premature: it's not a great film, critics say (the feedback from audiences in China have also been mixed), but it's not the film some may have thought it was either.

'The largest potential market'

Though originally appearing as somewhat of a historical drama, "The Great Wall" (which was produced by Legendary Pictures and is distributed by Universal Pictures, a sister company of NBC News), is actually a fantasy and monster film set against the backdrop of an iconic landmark. Damon and co-star Pedro Pascal (best known for his roles in Netflix's "Narcos" and HBO's "Game of Thrones") play mercenary soldiers in search of a coveted weapon in the form of explosive powder. Their journey takes them to the Great Wall, where an army of warriors stands ready to fight off an invasion by mythical creatures called the Tao Tei.

"The Great Wall" is part of a significant trend as the influence of China's film industry — which is also expected to to be the world's biggest market by the end of 2018 — continues to grow in Hollywood.

"China remains the second largest film market in the world and the largest potential market with the most theaters, so there remain large, potentially unexplored financial gains," Aynne Kokas, assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of "Hollywood Made in China," told NBC News.

Kokas also explained that films that are designated U.S.-China co-productions not solely by how much of the film's budget is paid for by Chinese companies, but also by how much influence Chinese regulators are allowed to have.

"Co-production regulations dictate the number of Chinese stars, and the percentage of the film that must be shot in China," Kokas said. "Chinese regulators at the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television review the story prior to production and have final cut approval for films. This is a major departure from directors, producers, or even corporations having final cut approval. Co-production essentially turns Chinese regulators into the most influential stakeholder in the filmmaking process."

Director Zhang Yimou said he believes "The Great Wall" will serve as a template for the future on how co-productions move forward. "It’s very much like the United States and China working together," Zhang told NBC News through a translator. "It’s going to symbolize how two countries collaborate."

That theme of collaboration has also been very much a part of the conversation about "The Great Wall, from inception to production to release.

"Half our crew was Chinese, and half our crew was international, and so we had 100 translators working between the production office and on set," Damon said, adding that a major draw for him to the film was the opportunity to witness Zhang, whose grand scale productions have also included the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, direct such a massive project.

"To watch him kind of choreograph that with a thousand extras in battle armor, and then choreograph the camera movements, it was just really awesome to watch," Damon said.

Testing a growing industry

Along with being the largest U.S.-China co-production, "The Great Wall" is the most expensive film shot entirely in China, and brings together an internationally-acclaimed director (this is Zhang's first English-language film and his first 3D film, as well as his most expensive film to date) with a popular American movie star (Damon's "The Martian" and "Bourne" franchise were hits in China). The film also famous Chinese stars, such as Canto-pop star and actor Andy Lau and former K-pop boy band member Lu Han.

"Co-production essentially turns Chinese regulators into the most influential stakeholder in the filmmaking process."

But can all of those elements come together to create success at the box office? On its opening weekend in China, "The Great Wall" brought in $67 million, making it the country's fourth-biggest debut of 2016; but since its release two months ago, the $150 million-budget film has grossed $170 million in China and $224 million worldwide.

Compared to the success of Legendary's "Warcraft" in China last year (which made $220 million in China in its first month, despite tanking at the U.S. box office), "The Great Wall" has some catching up to do.

Kokas said the advantage that "Warcraft" had was the opportunity to tap into a pre-existing brand, rather than try and draw audiences in with an entirely new story. "'The Great Wall' does star Matt Damon, but there have been several Matt Damon films released recently in China, and there was not the same amount of pent-up demand for a Matt Damon film as for a studio adaptation of World of Warcraft," she said.

But the lower-than-expected numbers have also been explained by Chinese officials as the fault of early critics, whose "vicious and irresponsible" reviews have hurt films at the box office.

When it comes to the casting controversy brought on by Damon's casting, Zhang says he thinks the criticism missed the point.

"The female lead is also Chinese as well, and there’s a lot of other Chinese characters in the movie," Zhang said, referring to the army leader played by Jing Tian (who notably is set to appear in two upcoming Legendary Productions films, "Kong: Skull Island" and "Pacific Rim"). "The story itself, I feel, is very natural. It makes sense that there’s a character that traveled along the Silk Road and got to China."

Damon said he hopes those who criticized "The Great Wall" last year will see the film before judging.

"I’ll be interested if people see the movie and realize the whole idea is that it was an 'East meets West' co-production, giant monster movie where monsters are attacking and the humans are fighting the monsters, and there’s a lot of heroes," Damon said. "We’ll see if there’s a controversy after people actually see the thing."

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