- Early ticket sales data indicate film will not set records in the territory
- Disney’s efforts set the stage for long-term franchise growth
- When the original Star Wars released in 1977, China had just come out of a decade-long Cultural Revolution
Star Wars: The Force Awakens will finally invade Chinese theaters this Saturday, January 9 and the hype is at a fever pitch — in Hollywood.
From reading English-language media, one would expect “the force” to wake with as much power as it did three weeks ago in the rest of the world. Outlets such as Reuters and The Hollywood Reporter have delved into the online chatter and talked to the heads of major theater chains in reports predicting largely positive outcomes. However, the tone in mainland China has been more muted, especially in interior cities where the franchise comes nowhere near being the cultural phenomenon it is in other countries. When the original Star Wars released in 1977, China had just come out of a decade-long Cultural Revolution, when movie making stopped entirely, then restarted with a propaganda bent.
According to the real-time box office tracking app Cat’s Eye (猫眼), presales for The Force Awakens point to around RMB 6.6 million ($1 million) for midnight screenings and RMB 132 million+ ($20+ million) for its opening Saturday, figures that lag well behind the Chinese debuts of other Hollywood juggernauts such as Furious 7 ($66.8 million) and Avengers: Age of Ultron ($33.9 million). It bears noting that China’s currency has weakened significantly against the U.S. dollar over the past six months, so The Force Awaken’s final USD total will see a roughly 5% reduction as a result. Still, with the next three weeks cleared of box office competition, China Film Insider predicts that this first installment of the rebooted Star Wars trilogy will gross an admirable $150 million before Kung Fu Panda 3 opens on January 29.
Now should Disney really be concerned that The Force Awakens won’t be breaking box office records in China? Absolutely not.
First, the film has broken just about every single record in North America and will undoubtedly cross $2 billion in ticket sales worldwide, a feat so astounding only two other films in history — Titanic ($2.18 billion) and Avatar ($2.78 billion) — have managed to accomplish. Though all eyes will be focused on China this weekend, Disney clearly doesn’t need a phenomenal run there to prove that its $4 billion acquisition of the Star Wars franchise was a smart investment.
Second, Disney has done a great job laying the foundation for future Star Wars installments, spinoffs, and merchandising in China, by using The Force Awakens to introducing the brand to a new generation of moviegoers, and they can expect to see the dividends pay off in the coming years as the Star Wars culture establishes a foothold in the nation’s psyche, with Chinese actors taking on roles in the franchise’s coming spinoff, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Disney doesn’t have to look very far to find a comparable precedent: While it took several years for the studio’s Marvel universe to get off the ground in China, that is now by far the highest-grossing franchise there.
As a key part of its future success, Disney’s hiring of pop star Lu Han as its Star Wars cultural ambassador has been a savvy (albeit controversial) move. Most of the 700,000 “Star Wars” mentions on Sina Weibo cited by Reuters last month have little to do with the movie itself and instead they are mostly all about how “Ahhhhhh Lu Han is soooooo handsome!” as one fan put it, and Disney marketing executives can still rest assured that Xīngqiú dàzhàn (星球大战, literally “Star Wars”) has entered the online vocabulary of China’s most sought after demographic.
So the force has indeed awakened in China. Perhaps not with the kind of power to “rock this place tonight” and “shake it to the ground now,” as Lu Han sings in the just-released music video for “The Inner Force” (above), but rather with the slow burn of an enterprise willing to take its time, experiment, and get to know its audience over the long haul.
Follow Jonathan Papish on Twitter: @ChinaBoxOffice