‘Meg 2: The Trench’ Chews Up Prehistoric Ideas of How a Chinese Movie Should Be Made

“Meg 2: The Trench” serves up a school of prehistoric fish that chew up the seas, a snapping pack of imaginary hybrid dinosaurs that wreak havoc on land and a surprising cinema business model — the Chinese-controlled franchise intended for a global audience.

And while early reviews are predictably mixed, the film’s box office debut looks promising. In China, on Friday, it bit off a $19.5 million first day and enjoyed a 50% market share. In North America, opening weekend forecasts are for a $30 million mouthful.

Outwardly, the new movie has the look and feel of summer season Hollywood popcorn fare, including Jason Statham beating up things even bigger than himself, a gang of strictly one-dimensional bad guys and Warner Bros. handling a wide global release.

The introduction of Chinese superstar Wu Jing and some Hainan Island backdrops may give clues to the film’s Middle Kingdom pedigree. But only a deeper dive below the movie’s surface reveals that “Meg 2” is not simply a China-U.S. co-production — a species that largely died out in the 2010s – but rather a Chinese-controlled franchise movie. And, instead of being limited by language or politics, it is tailored for global audiences.

“We control 100% of the IP, it is our franchise and we were responsible for making the commercial arrangements with our partners Warner Bros.,” says Catherine Ying Xujun, CEO of Shanghai-based CMC Pictures and Gravity Pictures. “Our collaboration with Warner back in 2018 [on “The Meg”] was a big success. And so, we started the development process [on the sequel] immediately.” Returning producers include Lorenzo di Bonaventura and “Mother of Meg” Belle Avery.

“The box office distribution of the first movie was approximately one-third from mainland China, one-third from North America and one-third from rest of the world. A very interesting and even distribution,” says Ying. “So, we hired a Los Angeles consultancy to conduct a survey and help us understand what worked and what they expected from a second film.” Feedback included a desire for more monsters and more illustration of the depths below the thermocline.

This is not a standard practice in China. “Chinese companies normally do things their own way, but ‘Meg’ is a global movie,” Ying says.

The storyline of “Meg 2” is loosely based on the book “The Trench” by Steve Alten. But the development process saw the producers ordering up a completely new third act that brought the action back to the surface of the ocean.

The narrative picks up smoothly a few years after the events of 2018’s Jon Turteltaub-directed “The Meg,” with a megalodon (literally a “big-toothed” prehistoric shark) escaping from captivity at an oceanographic research station.

The supposedly domesticated adolescent meg soon connects with more of its kind, which have breached the cold layers that had kept the species out of human contact for millions of years. That puts the hungry and horny(!) predators on a collision course with a deep-sea rescue mission that is already challenged by the bad-guy mineral miners that Statham’s character had once previously put behind bars.

The film is directed by the U.K.s Ben Wheatley (“Free Fire,” “Kill List”) and is presented predominantly in English. In the version seen by Variety, the two major Chinese characters — Wu’s affable scientist Zhang Jiuming and his smart-but-disobedient niece (played again by ‘Sophia’ Cai Shuya) — smoothly switch between Mandarin Chinese and English whenever it is appropriate.

Killing off two of the main Chinese characters from the first film (one on screen, the other in the five-year interval since) meant that finding a suitable Chinese co-star was essential. Avery says that Wu — China’s biggest male star of the past five years, with credits including “Wolf Warrior” and its sequel (which he also directed) and “The Battle at Lake Changjin” — was always her first choice for the role.

That Ying had a professional relationship with him would seal the deal. But doing so meant enlightening the U.S. partners first. “They climbed on board very quickly. Each one of Wu’s last five films did $400-$800 million at the box office in China alone,” says Avery. “It was an easy sell.”

She credits Wu’s directing experience and his willingness to challenge the production team as helping to ensure that Chinese elements and nuances were respected throughout — details such as the artifacts in his character’s office to the how a Chinese man would process the death of his father. “He is also a father figure for his niece and had to deal with this Western guy,” says Avery, referencing Statham. “It was a really fun juxtaposition. Everything Wu’s character does is a calculated risk. While Jason’s character is all gut instinct.”

Filmmaking cooperation between the U.S. and China was significantly explored by studios, independents and several financial entities in the brief period between 2012 and 2018. But many pioneers found that the political, cultural and financial complexities of production were simply too overwhelming or that they eroded the supposed financial benefits. That was especially true of official Chinese co-productions, which offer a legal route around China’s film import quota system and give a film dual nationality.

The more recent diplomatic deep freeze between the two superpowers and the COVID pandemic have made a rarity even of unofficial Sino-U.S. co-ventures.

“The rule of thumb criteria for [an official Chinese] co-production is that a third of the financing, a third of the production and a third of the personnel have to come from China,” says Ying. “I would not frame [‘Meg 2: The Trench’] as a co-production, but as a Chinese local production.” Albeit one made in English for global consumption.

Ying explains that on “Meg 2: The Trench” Chinese companies were the majority investors, that less than a third of the cast and crew are Chinese and that most of the production took place in studios near London, making use of the U.K.’s location production incentives. Phuket, Thailand, provided the tropical setting for the third act’s carnage and resolution.

Doing principal photography overseas also went a long way to resolving the difficulty of filming during COVID-locked China. Eventually, only second unit photography in Hainan, Shanghai and Qingdao was done in the People’s Republic.

Avery also offers other insights into the relative ease of getting “Meg 2” made. “It’s a monster genre movie. We just were telling a story, like ‘Jurassic Park,’ we weren’t going near anything that could be controversial,” she says.

Second, practice makes perfect. “Everybody talks about how difficult [production with China] is, but it wasn’t so much on this. The first one was harder. This one, it was pretty synergistic,” says Avery, who is already lining up another Chinese co-venture as her next non-“Meg” picture.

Avery also confirmed that Wu has a back-end deal and will participate in the film’s global, not just its Chinese, business. “He’s the co-star of the movie. Jason does, so Wu Jing certainly should, as well,” she says.

The SAG-AFTRA strike meant that Statham is not participating in the movie’s promotion and that Wu has limited himself to marketing within China. Instead, the producers have had to try marketing innovations, such as a swimming event in London, in order to make the appropriate splash.

Innovation may also be the road ahead as Chinese cinema reconnects with the rest of the world after a hiatus.

“CMC, and maybe other Chinese movie companies, in the future will think of themselves more like studios. We will not be limited by what is traditionally thought as local production, co-production or international projects. It’ll be more about the story in hand. What’s the story? What’s the target audience and the best language to tell that story in,” says Ying. “Then we’ll decide who we work with as strategic partners.”

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