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‘The Meg’ Aims Big at China, but Will Audiences Bite?

As with many broad action-driven films these days, how “The Meg” performs in China could determine the financial fate of the $150 million picture. With its China-friendly storyline and cast, the giant-shark thriller would seem to have a head start – but look no further than “The Skyscraper” for proof that such components are no guarantee audiences will bite.

The Meg” releases Friday in China, more or less day-and-date with its outings in North America and other parts of Asia. It’s expected to start off with 15,000 to 20,000 screens in the Middle Kingdom – about 35% of available theaters – and have close to 100,000 screenings per day, including IMAX screenings.

But the pressure will be on for the film to deliver quickly. If it doesn’t, exhibitors are likely to switch over to other titles, such as next week’s Hong Kong-made actioner “Europe Raiders.”

“The Meg” premiered in China last week at the Water Cube, the futuristic swimming pool complex in Beijing built for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Cast and crew in attendance included Chinese actress Li Bingbing, director Jon Turteltaub, and Jason Statham, the British action star who has a mega-following in China and who is a former Olympic diver. To drive buzz, there were also screenings in 20 mainland cities and fan events in Beijing’s trendy Sanlitun district and at a music festival.

The film is a U.S.-China co-production. It opens with a Chinese oceanic research ship getting attacked by giant sea creatures, then moves onto a “Jaws”-like narrative about a giant prehistoric shark, known as a Megalodon, chomping through hapless human fodder. In contrast to some other pictures hoping to score with Chinese moviegoers, the Chinese story elements feel organic rather than like an afterthought. And both Statham and Li (“Resident Evil: Retribution,” “Transformers: Age of Extinction”) are extremely popular in China.

But whether those advantages are enough to keep “The Meg” swimming for longer at the Chinese box office is unclear. One commentator on the Mtime ticketing website described the film bluntly as “the submarine version of ‘Jurassic Park.’” Another noted: “We Chinese seem to have a liking for Western men with big muscles and bald heads. Let’s see if it does better than ‘Skyscraper.'”

That film, starring Dwayne Johnson, is set in Hong Kong and has 30% of its dialogue in Cantonese. But it garnered tepid reviews and has grossed a less-than-stratospheric $95 million in China to date.

Gravity Pictures, the local producer and distributor handling “The Meg’s” release in China, says its key demographic is 20-to-39-year-olds and that its local marketing has put an emphasis on action and adventure, rather than horror. That has been true of its three trailers (which are only marginally different from the North American versions), its poster campaigns, and teasers that show production and background sequences.

Although “The Meg” has been nearly 20 years in the making, it didn’t debut as a China project until March 2016, when it was the slate highlight of a launch event in Hong Kong of Flagship Entertainment, a joint venture between Warner Bros., China Media Capital and Hong Kong’s TVB. The event was attended by Warner top brass Kevin Tsujihara and Richard Fox and CMC chairman Li Ruigang.

“The Meg” is now considered a full co-production under Chinese regulations. That means it does not need to be imported under China’s revenue-sharing quota system, and rights-holders including Warner and Flagship can earn 45% of gross revenues, rather than the 25% that foreign studios receive under revenue-sharing terms. It also allows Gravity Pictures, which is owned by CMC, to handle the release, bypassing the two state-owned enterprises that release nearly all the quota films.

On paper at least, “The Meg” actually fails to meet the location shooting requirement that is normally one of the three tests for a film to be considered a Chinese co-production. (China and the U.S. do not have a co-production treaty.) Instead, most of the filming took place in New Zealand, where special water tanks were built at the Kumeu Studios outside Auckland.

What presumably swayed the argument for giving the film Chinese nationality is its strong score on the other two tests: significant Chinese finance and equity participation, and Chinese cast in key roles.

Having local distributor Gravity on board from the script stage enabled a smoothing of the censorship process. Remarkably for an action-horror film, “The Meg” does not include a single swear word. That should help it meet China’s requirement that all films be open to audiences of all ages.

Gravity also likely helped the film navigate waters that a U.S. studio alone might’ve steered clear of. “For the first time, a Hollywood film dares to make trouble in Chinese territory,” one online commentator wrote, referring to “The Meg’s” horror action sequences set in Chinese waters, which potentially risked upsetting censors vigilant for anything that makes China look bad, or stoking a nationalistic backlash against the film. In 2009, the Film Bureau ordered “Mission: Impossible 3” to re-cut scenes shot in Shanghai that showed clothes hanging untidily on laundry lines.

Since that time, Hollywood has often overcompensated with sometimes awkward plot elements that show China in a positive light, as in the movies “Gravity,” “Interstellar,” “Arrival,” and, most ham-handedly, “Iron Man 3,” which was announced as a full co-production, but then failed at least one of the three qualifying tests.

“The Meg” is expected to open in eye-popping 3-D, IMAX, IMAX 3-D and China Giant Screen versions, as well as standard 2-D. Exhibitors could choose to give “The Meg” all 500 IMAX screens in commercial operation in China, though some operators may continue to show smash hit “Hello Mr. Billionaire” and “Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings.”

How well “The Meg” performs in China could have an effect on a slew of other Hollywood-China collaborations coming down the pike. These include STX Entertainment and Alibaba Pictures’ “Steel Soldiers,” YA franchise “Warriors,” Tang Media Partnership’s “The Last Masters” (involving “The Meg” producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura), and STX and Tencent Pictures’ video-game adaptation “Zombie Brother” with Channing Tatum.

Legendary Entertainment’s “The Great Wall,” made in China on a similar budget to “The Meg,” is a high-water mark for live-action U.S.-Chinese co-ventures. Despite frequently being labeled a flop, the Matt Damon-starrer grossed $170 million in China, $45 million in North America and $120 million elsewhere for a total of $335 million worldwide.

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