By Clay Chandler and Eamon Barrett
August 11, 2018

In the escalating U.S.-China trade war, the American film industry, so far, has remained unscathed. The Meg, the Warner Bros.-backed shark movie starring Jason Statham and Li Bing Bing, illustrates how Hollywood is learning to collaborate with Chinese counterparts—even as Washington and Beijing bicker.

In the U.S., The Meg has inspired a feeding frenzy among film critics. “As dumb as a bucket of sand!” declared the Houston Chronicle. Ars Technica‘s verdict: “We’re going to need a stupider boat.”

But the film has fared better than expected in American theaters. It took in $32 million in the U.S. its opening weekend, outperforming Skyscraper and Mission Impossible: Fallout. In China, where The Meg opened Friday, it “thrashed to a third-place finish,” according to Variety, taking in about $15 million, or 22% of total box office. Not bad for a CGI fish story that expects audiences to swallow the idea that a 75-foot megalodon (a species of giant shark scientists say has been extinct for 2.6 million years) lurks at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

What’s interesting about The Meg is that it wasn’t made solely for U.S. audiences. Rather, it’s one of a growing number of Hollywood blockbusters—including The Great Wall, the Pacific Rim series, Transformers: The Last Knight, and Skyscraper—expressly produced to hook moviegoers in China. Statham and Li, who attended a gala premier for the movie at Beijing’s Water Cube last week, are huge draws in China. Much of the movie’s storyline is set in Chinese waters. And the entire production was bankrolled by a trans-Pacific consortium that includes Warner Bros., Hong Kong-based Flagship Entertainment, and China’s Gravity Pictures.

Producers have invoked The Meg’s potential for cross-over appeal in the world’s two largest film markets to justify its monster-sized budget (reportedly more than $150 million). It’s too early to say whether they’ll break even. Variety notes, though, that the fact The Meg is a U.S.-China co-production means it didn’t need to be imported under China’s revenue-sharing quota system, which currently limits the number of foreign films shown in China to 34 a year. Another advantage: Warner and Flagship can earn 45% of gross revenues, rather than the 25% foreign studios receive under revenue-sharing terms. And co-production status allowed Gravity Pictures, which is owned by China Media Capital, to manage the firm’s release in China, bypassing the two state-owned enterprises that usually handle quota films.

The Meg’s China opening was marred by controversy over iPartment, a local comedy and China’s current top grosser with box office of $45 million. Industry insiders allege iPartment’s distributors of artificially manipulated its ranking by buying more than $15 million in tickets to their own movie. That happens a lot in China. But it may also be that Chinese moviegoers just aren’t biting. So far no U.S.-China co-production team has figured out how to make blockbusters that are equally successful in both markets.

While Statham and Li chase the megalodon across China’s silver screens, the nation’s editorial writers have their harpoons out for MAGA Don in pages of the state-owned media. For months, China’s press has been under strict orders to not to attack President Trump directly in criticisms of U.S. trade policy. But on Monday, an editorial in the official China Daily denounced the U.S. leader for starring in his own “street fighter-style deceitful drama of extortion and intimidation.” Sounds like somebody’s working on a screenplay!

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

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