Wall of worry

LeEco’s latest problem: will its Matt Damon blockbuster pay?


Jing: how she dresses when not defending the Great Wall from zombies

Emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC) first ordered the construction of the Great Wall to protect against attackers from the Steppe. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) – the period in which the wall took its definitive form – it also played a critical role in China’s defence against Manchurian and Mongolian invaders. But how effective is the Great Wall when it comes to deterring zombie marauders?

That isn’t a question that has overly concerned Chinese historians. But it was a query for Thomas Hull, chief executive of Hollywood studio Legendary Entertainment, when he made his first visit to the historical landmark. That soon evolved into the plot line of the most expensive film ever made in China, which is called, somewhat unimaginatively, The Great Wall.

Directed by the illustrious filmmaker Zhang Yimou, and based on a script written by Max Brooks (who also wrote the zombie blockbuster World War Z), the movie stars Matt Damon in the role of a foreign mercenary charged with fighting off flesh-eating monsters called Taotie. Chinese stars like Andy Lau, Lu Han and Jing Tian were also on hand to lend their star power.

The film reportedly cost more than $150 million to make, the most in China-Hollywood co-production history. Legendary, which is now owned by China’s Wanda Group, has pinned its hopes that the historical-epic-meets-zombie-warfare flick would strike a chord with audiences in the West too, a feat no film has really achieved since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon almost two decades ago.

But the road to global domination doesn’t look straightforward. Since its release in mid-December, The Great Wall has been hugely controversial at home. Even though it took Rmb375 million ($55 million) at the box office in its first three days, ticket sales in China then stalled as a result of the landslide of negative reviews online. On Douban, a film and TV series review site, audiences gave it a rating of only 4.9 out of 10, and film critics were equally scathing. The Shanghai Morning Post described it as “disappointing” and complained that the computer-generated effects seemed “forced and unnecessary”.

Many fans of the celebrated filmmaker Zhang were less than impressed with his latest work, with many accusing him of compromising his standards for commercial effect. Shenzhen Evening News says that there wasn’t much evidence that Zhang had even directed the feature. Another respected critic with the online handle Xiedu Film went so far as to declare that “Zhang Yimou has died” on his personal weibo.

Needless to say, the overwhelmingly negative response did not sit well with the film studios. After Xiedu Film’s weibo post went viral, Zhang Zhao, chief executive of Le Vision, which co-produced The Great Wall with Legendary and China Film Group, launched a vitriolic riposte to the reviewer. “You who curse Chinese films are doomed to rot,” he promised. The movie-making arm of tech giant LeEco also threatened to take legal action against the critic unless he issued a retraction and an apology.

A little too sensitive to criticism, maybe? Yet the People’s Daily reckons that industry reviewers do bear some of the responsibility for the current doldrums in cinema sales in China, after a long period of boom. In an editorial, the newspaper berated the film critics for publishing “vicious and irresponsible statements to attract readers, fans, and web traffic, which have seriously damaged the ecosystem for Chinese cinema”. It also lashed out at review sites like Douban and Maoyao for their “surprisingly low” ratings of domestic films. The piece went on to suggest that Douban’s reviews could have been hacked or manipulated.

There were financial reasons behind Le Vision’s strong reaction to the badmouthing of The Great Wall as well. The tech giant was betting that the co-production would revive investor confidence after its shares tumbled in November when company founder Jia Yueting admitted that LeEco – the holding firm – is strapped for cash after “moving too fast” (see WiC346).

“People already had very high expectations of The Great Wall, but bad reviews spread like wildfire and discouraged many potential moviegoers from going to see it,” Huang Guofeng, an analyst with consultancy Analysys International, told Business Insider. “Le Vision has taken a huge bet – but now the chance of meeting that goal is extremely slim.”

National Business Daily agrees: “Even though The Great Wall is only one of the many films Le Vision had released this year [2016], at a time when LeEco is facing a cash crunch and financing is tight, its every step is the focus of investor attention. LeEco is treading on thin ice – when a part of the chain starts to fall apart it could lead to the whole company crumbling.”

Reputedly, all publicity is good publicity. And after the verbal row broke out, moviegoers did in fact start to head back to the cinemas to see what all the fuss was about. Receipts for The Great Wall then saw an uptick (it has taken a total of Rmb1 billion at the box office). “I had to go see it for myself to see what everyone is yelling about,” one netizen wrote.Nevertheless, LeEco is still some distance from breaking even on its cinematic punt, says Tencent Entertainment, which claims that the film needs to make at least Rmb3 billion in ticket sales globally to go into the black.

For overseas readers, The Great Wall will debut in Europe and the US next month.

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