The science-fiction deep-sea thriller “The Meg” is on track to become the most successful coproduction between Hollywood and Chinese moviemaking houses, reviving prospects for an emerging area of cinema that’s seen its fair share of misses.
A movie about a giant shark wreaking havoc on a tourist town is this year’s surprise summer hit. Sound familiar? That’s what its Chinese producer was hoping for.
“The Meg,” which became a hit both in the U.S. and China, had drawn $314 million globally as of last weekend. Debuting Aug. 10, it has become the biggest shark film since the 1975 blockbuster “Jaws.”
Less known is that the science-fiction deep-sea thriller is also on track to become the most successful coproduction between Hollywood and Chinese moviemaking houses, reviving prospects for an emerging area of cinema that’s seen its fair share of misses. Executive Producer Jiang Wei says part of the formula for making such joint ventures successful is: Go easy on cultural references.
“I knew the subject was very suitable for coproductions: adventure, sci-fi, sharks,” Jiang, who was president of Gravity Pictures when it co-produced “The Meg,” said in a recent interview. “It doesn’t involve many cultural, educational or national issues.”
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Given Hollywood’s penchant for imitation, “The Meg” may spawn imitators and more bets on coproductions that weave in Chinese elements without hard-to-get cultural references. The film’s success in winning coveted coproduction status also shows China’s film authorities, who decide which movies qualify, don’t always demand unmistakably Chinese cultural references.
“The Meg,” co-produced with Warner Bros., tells the story of an oceanic research team off the coast of China encountering a 75-foot prehistoric shark. The Meg, or megalodon, threatens thousands of tourists frolicking in Sanya Bay. The film “reasonably” melds Chinese cast and elements with Hollywood production and distribution flair, a combination that accounts for its success, Jiang said. After reading the 1997 best-seller “Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror,” in 2014, he concluded it that it would be ideal for a coproduction, partly because it had a universal theme with very few culturally specific references.
China’s government has encouraged films as a way to promote the country’s image globally, building the kind of soft power that has benefited geopolitical rivals like the U.S.
Hollywood filmmakers have tried including Chinese elements, from simply adding Chinese cast to setting films in China. or making Chinese scientists the heroes, as in “The Martian.”
Jiang’s culture-lite formula contrasts with that of “The Great Wall,” the most expensive live action feature film that joined Hollywood and Chinese studios. Starring Matt Damon, the $150 million action epic, based on Chinese mythological themes and involving one of China’s best-known cultural landmarks, flopped in North America last year, heightening the sense that coproduction success is elusive.
Coproductions help Hollywood capitalize on China’s fast-growing film market, now the world’s second largest. Under such deals, studios get a bigger slice of box-office revenue than when they simply export a film to China. Such films are also eligible for more favorable release dates in the country.
The biggest China-U. S. coproduction of any kind was the 2016 animation “Kung Fu Panda 3.” Having grossed $521 million worldwide, the film still stands as the biggest China-U. S. coproduction, while “The Meg” has become the largest live-action coproduction.