On Screen China: The Force Flags in Opening Weekend

  • Figures suggest that The Force Awakens failed to hit with a new generation of Chinese moviegoers
  • Sunday’s gross receipts fell 35% from Saturday’s opening
  • Social media reaction points to a truncated run, $150 million possible


After months of a Disney marketing blitz targeting an audience largely unfamiliar with the franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (星球大战:原力觉醒) debuted in China on Saturday, and grossed a two-day estimated total of $52.7 million.

According to an email sent out to industry analysts early Sunday morning from Disney spokesman Dominic Hougham, Saturday’s $32 million opening and the weekend tally were “the biggest opening Saturday of all-time as well as the highest Saturday/Sunday opening of all-time,” heralding new records for The Force Awakens.

However, beneath those numbers and Disney’s triumphant claims lie some troubling figures that suggest that The Force Awakens failed to hit with a new generation of Chinese moviegoers.

The film was, in fact, the first in recent history to open on a Saturday, so Disney’s assertion it was the biggest Saturday opening of all-time should be taken in context.

Saturday’s gross (RMB 209 million) was just the sixth highest Saturday behind the first Saturdays of Transformers 4 (RMB 223 million), Furious 7 (225 million), Mojin—The Lost Legend (RMB 230 million), Age of Ultron (RMB 236 million), and Lost In Hong Kong (RMB 246 million).

In addition, Sunday’s gross (RMB 133 million) fell 35% from Saturday’s total, a rare steep drop on an opening weekend and a sign that the film may have little staying power at the Chinese box office.

Chinese social media reaction to The Force Awakens is pointing to a truncated run that won’t reach the heights of other Hollywood successes. Culture web site Douban’s ratings of the J.J. Abrams film currently sit at 7.4/10, down from a peak of 8/10 over the weekend.

Perhaps what should be most disconcerting to Disney are reports that younger moviegoers in third- and fourth-tier cities, the demographic fueling China’s booming box office and the target of Disney’s marketing bonanza—the foundation for its future success in the country—were confused by the plot and even heard snoring during screenings.

The nostalgia that has fueled The Force Awakens’ climb to the highest-grossing film of all-time in North America is the same element preventing Chinese audiences unfamiliar with its legacy from embracing it.

Many commentators complained about the lack of innovative plot structure and outdated story elements: “If a science fiction film lacks imagination,” wrote Douban user Hualun Rabbit, “then what makes it different from a soap opera? The story was completely in service to fans of the original trilogy and it only relied on razzle-dazzle effects. The most laughable element is that all the force in the galaxy could belong to one family. Creating nostalgia while introducing a new conceptual story doesn’t have to conflict.”

Disney’s distribution chief Dave Hollis told Variety on Saturday that, for many Chinese moviegoers, “the Force Awakens will serve as the first Star Wars film they’ve ever seen,” and that the studio was encouraged by the initial response and what it represents for the long-term future of the franchise in China.

In the end, the studio will be happy with what is should amount to $150 million by the end of its run. But the mixed, and in some places negative, word of mouth among China’s young moviegoers does not guarantee long-term success of the franchise in the world’s second largest movie market. Luckily, up next for Disney comes the spinoff Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, slated for release at the end of the year. The film features a stand-alone story and the addition of Chinese actors Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen to appeal to would-be Chinese fans.

— Follow Jonathan Papish on Twitter: @ChinaBoxOffice