On Screen China: The Force Is Not Strong with ‘Rogue One’

Star Wars one-off may find the going tough in country that has never embraced the franchise.

Imperial Stormtroopers guard the entrance to the Beijing premiere of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Courtesy Mtime)

Imperial Stormtroopers guard the entrance to the Beijing premiere of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Courtesy Mtime)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (星球大战外传:侠盗一号)

China Distribution – China Film Group Corporation (中国电影集团公司)
US Distribution – Walt Disney Studio Pictures

The original Star Wars trilogy — released between 1977 and 1983 and distributed by Fox — hit theaters when China was just beginning to open up to the rest of the world after decades of isolation under Chairman Mao’s leadership. American audiences were snaking around blocks to see The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, but in a galaxy far far away, the only outlet for a curious Chinese citizen would have been a bootleg VHS tape.

The prequel trilogy — released between 1999 and 2005 and also distributed by Fox — found its way to newly-built Chinese multiplexes, but the box office back then was a fraction of what it has become; The Phantom Menace grossed RMB 34 million (US$4.1 million) as the highest-grossing imported film of 1999; Zootopia took the same honor in 2016 with 45 times that total.

Walt Disney executives were no doubt seeing dollar signs from domestic ticket sales when the company purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4.0 billion, but surely China’s exploding box office and burgeoning middle-class consumer culture put the country squarely in their sights.

Given the history of Star Wars in China and its unfamiliarity to audiences, however, Disney may have underestimated the uphill battle they’d have to fight to connect with young, modern Chinese moviegoers.

The strategy preceding 2016’s release of The Force Awakens — the first Star Wars episode distributed by Disney — was an all-out marketing blitz. There’s nothing that says “We come in peace” more than 500 Stormtroopers lined up in battle array on the Great Wall of China.

On the practical side of things, Fox and Disney formed a partnership with internet giant Tencent to stream all six prequel films and opened a dedicated portal for viewers to learn about the Star Wars universe…and to sell merchandise.

And maybe Disney’s most interesting move to bring in Chinese youth: hiring “it” boy Lu Han as official Star Wars ambassador. Tasked with posting Star Wars-related Weibos to his millions of followers and gyrating in The Inner Force, a music video directed by Monster Hunt-helmer Raman Hui, Lu Han’s impact on The Force Awakens’ box office is still up for debate.

The film scored a robust two-day opening weekend of $52.6 million fueled largely in part by Disney’s marketing hype and groups of older, dedicated Star Wars fans.

Those new to the universe, however, were bored stiff by The Force’s by-the-numbers plot, outright confused by its character relationships, and unimpressed with a level of swordplay that they were more used to seeing in low-budget television series. Negative word of mouth hobbled the film in subsequent weeks and it ended with RMB 826 million ($124 million).

It’s this bad taste in the mouths of younger Chinese moviegoers that Disney must overcome with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (星球大战外传:侠盗一号), opening Friday, January 6.

While the studio was constricted with The Force Awakens into catering to audiences already familiar with and wanting the same as previous Star Wars episodes, Rogue One’s stand-alone nature, while still related to the overall story, means fresher elements could be added for an audience not 100 percent in-the-know.

Moreover, Chinese actors Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen have both been given essential roles in Rogue One —meatier than the token Chinese faces thrown willy-nilly into Hollywood films these days — and one may hope for box office success to see smarter collaborations like this in the future.

Unfortunately, the negativity surrounding The Force Awakens and Star Wars in general seems to have affected Rogue One’s box office prospects. Presales for Friday’s opening day are pointing at just RMB 40-50 million ($6-$7 million) and a three-day debut between $25-$30 million. Overall, Rogue One may struggle to finish with even half of The Force Awakens’ total box office.

The Force isn’t strong in China. But hey, at least Disney has Marvel.