Disney and Lucasfilm are going back to basics to try to build an audience for the Star Wars franchise in China.
The House of Mouse — and Skywalker — has inked a first-of-its-kind distribution deal with Tencent's China Literature, the Middle Kingdom's largest e-books and online reading platform, to license and distribute 40 translated Star Wars novels for Chinese readers.
The partnership, which was unveiled in Shanghai on Wednesday, also will entail the two companies working together to develop and publish the world’s first authorized Star Wars online novel written by a Chinese author, according to a press release shared by Disney over the official Star Wars Weibo account.
The Chinese Star Wars saga will be written by one of China Literature's hottest in-house writers, an author who goes by the Chinese pen name "His Majesty the King." The young author became a sensation online in China thanks to two wildly popular Xianxia martial arts novels published by Tencent's Qidian reading platform.
Disney and Lucasfilm said the Chinese story is still in development, but that it will introduce a new Chinese hero and will "combine native Chinese elements and the narrative style of Chinese literature to tell the story of Star Wars."
It comes as little surprise that Disney is taking a new approach to cultivate a bigger Chinese audience for the Star Wars saga. Although one of the studio's most valuable pieces of IP on a worldwide basis, the Star Wars franchise has been a curious under-performer in the world's most populous nation.
The original films in the Star Wars franchise never received a wide release in the 1970s and 80s, and China's younger generation of filmgoers have been mostly baffled by the referential storytelling approach and complicated backstories of the recent Disney-era Star Wars films.
The Force Awakens piqued curiosity in China in 2016, earning a respectable if not stellar $124 million (already well below Disney's expectations). But franchise spinoff Rogue One (2017) and Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi (2018) saw a further tapering off of local interest, earning just $69 million and $42.5 million, respectively.
Accordingly to local reports, Disney initiated the talks that led to the China Literature deal. The studio's apparent strategy is to do more ground work to draw China's legions of online readers into the Star Wars fan base.
China Literature claims a remarkable 217.1 million monthly active users across its platforms, which include powerhouse services Qidian.com and QQ Reading. During a promotional period running until Oct. 22, all 40 of the licensed Star Wars novels are being made available to Chinese users to read for free. The trove of licensed titles includes a diverse mix of Star Wars books, including novelizations of the original trilogy, as well as many of the popular expanded universe books now known as "Star Wars Legends," such as Timothy Zahn's "Thrawn" trilogy.
"We hope that more Chinese readers will be exposed to the Star Wars story, helping Star Wars renew its vitality in China," said Wu Wenhui, CEO of Literature, at Wednesday's event in Shanghai.
Added James Waugh, vice president of franchise content and strategy at Lucasfilm: "It is really exciting to be able to embark on a journey to define the Star Wars narrative for the vast number of Chinese readers. We hope that in the future, we will have the opportunity to present more fascinating Star Wars stories and content experiences to Chinese readers, gripping them with the spiritual core of the Star Wars brand."