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Film

Why Trump could put a dagger in 'The Great Wall'

"The Great Wall," the major US-Chinese co-production starring Matt Damon, is a groundbreaking collaboration. But Donald Trump's anti-China rhetoric could hurt the fantasy-adventure blockbuster.

The Americans and the Chinese came up with a good plan. To increase global revenues, production companies from both countries got together for the massive, $150-million film. "The Great Wall" is ringing in a new era in the film industry.

Both countries are meant to profit in this win-win situation: Hollywood stands to benefit from gaining a key to the gigantic Chinese market, which is the second largest in the world. For China, collaboration with the US is a pivotal step toward becoming a global player in the film industry.

But the release of "The Great Wall" roughly coincides with President-elect Donald Trump's debut on the world stage as a political leader. The film already came out in China and much of Asia and Europe in December and opens in US cinemas on February 17.

Trump's anti-China rhetoric - which at times seems like the precursor to a trade war - could put a damper on the film's success.

The US-Chinese team from 'The Great Wall' at their first press conference in 2015 (picture-alliance/dpa)

The US-Chinese team from 'The Great Wall' at their first press conference in 2015

Then there is Trump's growing disdain for the Hollywood establishment, most recently seen in his post-Golden Globe spat with Meryl Streep. It doesn't look like he's going to be lending support to US-Chinese film projects in the near future. 

Matt Damon, William Dafoe filmed in China

"The Great Wall," the largest US-Chinese co-production to date, opens Thursday in German cinemas. Directed by Zhang Yimou of China, the film mainly features a Chinese cast, though the screenplay was written in Hollywood and A-list stars Matt Damon and William Dafoe are also on board. The movie was filmed in English - but in China.

No less than five American and Chinese production companies shared the film's $150-million price tag. However, the participating US firm Legendary Entertainment was recently bought by the head of China's powerful Wanda Group.

"The Great Wall" is less a historically accurate story about China's famous architectural landmark and more of a 3D action-fantasy spectacle that is jam-packed with special effects.

Tian Jing in The Great Wall (Universal Pictures)

Tian Jing is one of the Chinese stars in the film

In the 11th century, a handful of European mercenaries led by Matt Damon go out to search for the gun powder that had been invented by the Chinese and find themselves fighting evil - that is, dragon-like monsters - together with the Chinese army.

It's a digital flick with endless fight scenes and not much depth - a blockbuster that borrows tricks and dramatic details from many other pop films. Artistically, though, it's a disaster.

Hollywood up against bureaucracy, censorship

But the Chinese and American filmmakers weren't particularly concerned with making art. "The Great Wall" is meant to achieve record ticket sales in the US, China and around the world.

So far, the Chinese market has not been very easy for Hollywood to crack, since the authorities are still quite strict about allowing foreign films to be shown. Only 34 US films per year are permitted for release in China. The media bureau SARFT in Beijing decides which films those are and when they can run.

The censorship office also gets involved. If a Hollywood film includes too much foul language, brutality or sex, then it has a poor chance of making it into Chinese cinemas.

While there have been recent discussions about raising the quota on US films in China, a slight increase wouldn't bring in much money. But when Chinese firms are involved in the production, then the film is no longer considered a foreign product and both Chinese investors and producers profit.

Film still The Great Wall (Universal Pictures)

China's wall gets a digital boost

Chinese film market has tremendous potential

For the Americans, China is the market of the future. As in other industries, the Asian superpower is climbing to the top in entertainment as well. The US may still be the most lucrative film country in the world, but experts predict that the quickly growing cinema market in China will soon overtake the American one.

In China, 20 new cinemas open every day and the industry is booming. Since the large Hollywood studios are now more dependent on revenue from abroad than they used to be, the Chinese market is a must for them. A million-dollar US blockbuster can hardly be financed without a boost from Chinese ticket offices. All the more motivation to work together.

On the other hand, Chinese investors are trying to get a foot in the door on the American market. The Chinese company Alibaba has been collaborating since last fall with Steven Spielberg's Amblin Partners. Warner Bros., Sony and Universal have all reached out to China and found willing partners.

Wang Jianlin (picture-alliance/dpa/R. Dela Pena)

Wang Jianlin is a powerful man in the film industry - even in the US

It's no secret that cinema mogul Wang Jianlin is interested in one of the Hollywood studios. His Wanda Group is already a global cinema leader and owns many in the US. Wanda's most recent coup was acquiring the US firm that produced the Golden Globe show - Dick Clark Productions.

Will Trump have an impact?

However, US politicians have been resistant to China "meddling" in the film industry. Government representatives recently called for close examination of Chinese investment in entertainment. And the fact that Donald Trump has appointed China-critic Peter Navarro as head of the National Trade Council is likely to worry American and Chinese film investors.

Whether or not Trump really aims to hinder their plans remains to be seen. After all, the US film industry creates countless jobs, which the president-elect is well aware of. For now, the makers of "The Great Wall" can hope that their big-budget flick fills cinemas around the world.

 

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