Box Office: Will Apocalyptic Smog Hurt 'Rogue One' in China This Weekend?

As seasonal air pollution in dozens of Chinese cities hits dangerous levels, some film fans are expected to stay home.
'Rogue One'   |   Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm
As seasonal air pollution in dozens of Chinese cities hits dangerous levels, some film fans are expected to stay home.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story faces one final test in its mission for global box office dominance: China, the world's No. 2 movie market.

The wildly successful Disney film will have to contend with a foe more fearsome than Stormtroopers and TIE Fighters this weekend when it finally enters the Middle Kingdom, however. Rogue One's China opening could be hindered by Beijing's apocalyptic air pollution.

Over the past few weeks, heavy smog in northern China has caused hundreds of flights to be canceled as visibility dropped to as low as 150 feet in some locations. On Tuesday, at least two dozen cities issued "red alerts" for pollution, China's highest rating for hazardous air.

During the New Year holiday weekend, China's box office dropped 23 percent compared with the year-ago period, with revenue falling to 662 million Chinese yuan ($95.6 million) from 863 million yuan ($124.7 million) in 2016.

The decline came after a slowdown at China's box office, which began last spring. But some Chinese analysts believe the slip was considerably worsened by the hazardous air blanketing much of the country during the holiday.

Box office in heavily smog-affected regions in Northern China, such as Beijing and Tianjin, saw box office fall as much as 34 percent, year on year, according to local media reports. Clear-skied areas in the south experienced just a 13 percent slip, meanwhile. Families and couples, rather than groups of young friends, were the moviegoer categories most likely to shun cinemas and stay home out of concern for their health, the reports said.

On Friday evening, many neighborhoods in Beijing registered an air quality index of nearly 300. The U.S. government, via its embassy in Beijing, rates readings above 200 "very unhealthy," and 301 to 500 as "hazardous." Forecasters don't expect the air to clear until Sunday or Monday.

"Some people who would have checked out Rogue One are going to stay home with their air purifiers this weekend — there's no question," said a Beijing-based producer working for a Hollywood studio, who asked not to be named. "How many is harder to say. Sadly, many of us who have lived in Beijing a long time are just used to this."

Rogue One was designed with the Chinese market in mind. Since the original three films in the saga never were released theatrically in the country — and the much-derided prequels came out before the Chinese box-office boom had kicked off in earnest — the adventures of Luke and Leia remain a galaxy far, far away to many moviegoers there. Force Awakens grossed a healthy $124.1 million in China, but that's almost half the $240.1 million that Avengers: Age of Ultron earned there (more on the franchise's unique challenges in China).

With Rogue One, Disney has taken a big step toward bringing China into the fold by casting two of the country's top stars: Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen, aka Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus. So far, the characters and their chemistry have been roundly embraced by international critics and fans alike — which is an especially good sign for the China market (for more on the two accomplished Chinese actors' backgrounds, see here).

Past Hollywood productions have seen their efforts to woo Chinese fans backfire. Social media users in the country are understandably skeptical of token castings of major Chinese stars in minor roles in Western movies. The brief appearances of Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing in Iron Man 3 (2013), for example, were widely derided as pandering. Chinese actress Angelababy appeared in a bigger part in Fox's Independence Day: Resurgence last summer, but many Chinese viewers still complained that her character was essentially dispensable.

Already, Rogue One seems to be getting a better reception. In an article released in late December, Global Times, an influential state-backed newspaper, wrote: "Although many Chinese netizens suspected that Jiang and Yen's inclusion in Rogue One was yet another pure market-driven choice, the two stars have much bigger roles in the film than previous attempts to include Chinese actors."

"Jiang and Yen do stand out," the paper added, quoting a fan.

Since its U.S. release on Dec. 16, the Star Wars spinoff has earned $829 million around the world. Whether the onscreen bromance of Baze and Chirrut can carry Rogue One through Beijing's noxious smog toward the $1 billion mark will be clear by Monday.


  • Patrick Brzeski