With 'The Meg,' Jason Statham Succeeded Where Dwayne Johnson, Matt Damon And Vin Diesel Failed
As of this writing, The Meg has earned around $6.05 million on Tuesday, rising a solid 33% from Monday and bringing its five-day total to $56m. At a glance, we're probably looking at a first-week gross of over/under $65m, with the hopes that the surprisingly solid opening weekend and decent audience buzz will allow it to join Mission: Impossible - Fallout as the summer closer. Amusingly, the chief competition this weekend is Crazy Rich Asians, which is also a Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc. release. No matter, unless it collapses here and abroad, Jason Statham and Li Bingbing's shark tale thriller is going to be a solid hit even with its $130m budget. And in that sense, it may be the first modern case of a big-budget live-action Hollywood/China co-production that was a success on both coasts.
No, it's not remotely the first big Hollywood movie that has been successful in China and North America. But in terms of movies that were, for all intents and purposes Chinese productions with a major Hollywood distributor, The Meg is in rare territory. Yes, Paramount/Viacom Inc.'s xXx: Return of Xander Cage was tailored to the Chinese marketplace. But the Vin Diesel action sequel cost just $85 million and flopped in North America. It earned most of its $346m global cume outside of America. Legendary and Universal twice tried this gambit and twice struck out. Warcraft was expected to hit big in China, and it did, for a week. The film was incredibly frontloaded and earned $90m in the first 48 hours and yet just $223m overall in China. But it made less than $50m in North America and its $165m budget (plus marketing) rendered even its $433m global cume something of a wash.
They tried again in late 2016/early 2017 with Zhan Yimou's The Great Wall. The Matt Damon action fantasy, wrongly tagged pre-release as a whitewashed/white savior story in the states (it was exactly the opposite, using its white guy hero to tell an "East >> West" melodrama), earned a decent $170 million in China when it opened in December of 2016. But it stumbled elsewhere, including just $45m in North America when it opened here in February of 2017. Doing well enough in China isn't good enough when A) the movie cost $150m and B) it only performed-to-expectations in China. I like the movie, but it was an example of studios targeting American and Chinese audiences and pleasing neither marketplace.
Ditto Pacific Rim: Uprising which earned $100 million+ in China but bombed almost everywhere else, including a $59m gross in North America. And, relatively speaking, ditto with Dwayne Johnson's Skyscraper which earned less in North America than The First Purge and did merely okay outside of China. So with a $125m gross and mediocre reviews/buzz, even a $98m total in China can't make it into a massive win. It's a minor disappointment, as opposed to a disaster, but it's another example of a movie tailored to China (it takes place in Shanghai and features many Chinese supporting characters) not breaking out on both sides of the isle.
In general, I have argued that the movies that score big in North America and China are often distinctly American movies (Ready Player One, Zootopia, etc.) or franchises that have gained a foothold in China (the MCU, Fast and Furious, not Star Wars, etc.). To the extent that Chinese audiences are flocking to the likes of non-fantasies like Dying to Survive and arguably "foreign" films like Coco and Dangal, it doesn't do much good to have a big movie that feels aggressively pandering to the Chinese marketplace. In a world where Operation Red Sea and Detective Chinatown 2 can top $500 million in China alone, the audience doesn't need to embrace pandering Hollywood biggies for big-scale cinematic thrills.
Ironically, the one prior example of a successful co-production was STX's The Foreigner. Martin Campbell's Jackie Chan/Pierce Brosnan action thriller, about a man pursuing the IRA terrorists who killed his daughter, was cheap enough (around $35 million) that a mere $35m domestic total, combined with its $81m Chinese gross (not bad for a bleak and action-light R-rated thriller) made it a big hit for STX and Wanda Pictures (among others). If the movie had cost $150m, a $145m global cume would have been a disaster. And since The Meg did in-fact cost between $130m and $178m (depending on who you ask), it matters that it isn't just (pending post-debut legs) a hit in China.
The film was financed by the likes of Warner Bros. and Maeday Pictures. WB and friends get 40% of the Chinese box office instead of the normal 25%. The film was sold as "Jason Statham versus a giant dino-shark" in North America. It also had a Chinese co-lead (Li Bingbing) and takes place in and around China. The closest thing the movie has to a villain is Rainn Wilson's tech zillionaire, so you don't have to play the "You think the Chinese company is evil but it turns out they really aren't!" game that felled Uprising and Skyscraper. And like a number of big Chinese productions (think Renny Harlin's Jackie Chan/Johnny Knoxville action comedy), The Meg was helmed by a guy (Jon Turteltaub) who was a big-deal big-movie Hollywood director in the 1990's or 2000's.
And, yeah, the Chinese/Hollywood co-production opened with $50.3 million in China and $45.3m in North America, a massive domestic overperformance. There are plenty of good reasons why this mega-budget shark thriller isn't relying on China to save its butt. It may have been sold in a wink-wink Snakes on a Plane fashion, but it offered enough "Don't worry, this is a real movie and not a camp fest" appeal to make sure folks didn't think they were being asked to fork over money for a knowingly bad flick. And it capitalized both on the public's appetite for shark thrillers and a general fondness toward Jason Statham that doesn't necessarily extend to his smaller, R-rated action movies. But no matter the reason, the fact remains that, barring a post-debut plunge here and abroad, The Meg may be the first of its kind. It's a Chinese/Hollywood big-budget production that is a hit on both coasts.
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