Box Office: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' Faces Final Test in China

Courtesy of Lucasfilms 2015/Walt Disney Studios
'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

The Disney tentpole has faced an uphill marketing battle in China, the world's second-largest movie market, where the saga is surprisingly unknown.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is already the highest-grossing film of all time in North America. But in order to take Avatar's crown as the biggest movie ever worldwide, the J.J. Abrams juggernaut will need a huge performance in China when it opens Saturday.  

"All bets are on China," says Vivek Couto, executive director of research and analysis firm Media Partners Asia. "China is what will propel them past the $2 billion mark and beyond."

Force Awakens' global tally had reached $1.58 billion as of Thursday. So there's still a ways to go before it's able to surpass the $2.78 billion that Avatar earned after it was released in December 2009.

China is expected to surpass North America as the world's largest movie market sometime next year, and Hollywood studios increasingly count on the territory to deliver big returns for their most expensive pictures. Universal, for example, just had a banner year in China, with Furious 7 grossing a record-breaking $390.9 million and Jurassic World taking in $228.7 million there.

But due to unique cultural and historical factors, Disney can't simply assume that Force Awakens will be embraced by Chinese moviegoers with the same audiencewide fanboy enthusiasm it garnered elsewhere.

When the original Star Wars debuted in 1977, China was still emerging from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, and Western entertainment was neither permitted nor of particular interest to the country's traumatized and impoverished population. None of the first three films in the franchise ever got a wide release there, and when the prequel films came out in the early 2000s, the country's exhibition infrastructure was still in its infancy. Revenge of the Sith grossed $11.7 million in 2005, which was considered a big success in China at the time.

Star Wars nostalgia — arguably the franchise's most salient selling point in most places — is virtually nonexistent among China's hundreds of millions of moviegoers. In the lead-up to Force Awakens' high-stakes China release, some analysts have pointed to South Korea, East Asia's third largest film market and another territory where the franchise's history is comparatively short, as an indicator of other challenges.

Disney and Lucasfilm's blockbuster has been outperformed in South Korea by a local mountaineering adventure-drama, The Himalayas from CJ Entertainment. After three weekends in Korean cinemas, Force Awakens has grossed $23.1 million, while Himalayas has scored $47.5 million over the same period. Other recent Hollywood tentpoles have fared considerably better in Korea. Jurassic World grossed $27.5 million in just two weeks in the market, and Avengers: Age of Ultron ended with a historic $78.3 million.

Force Awakens has been similarly beaten by local titles in Vietnam and India. Everywhere else in Asia it has dominated. 

Local experts suggest the space genre has been a sticking point. "South Koreans have generally been less enthusiastic when it comes to sci-fi films," says prominent Korean film critic Jeong Ji-ouk. "While Korea has been one of the biggest markets for films like Interstellar, such films had a strong educational appeal more than the sci-fi/fantasy aspect." The latest installment in J.J. Abrams' other sci-fi franchise, Star Trek Into Darkness, for example, earned just $11.4 million in South Korea.

"Disney started marketing a little late in Korea," offers one Asia-based exec who asked to remain unnamed because of sensitive business connections with the studio. "They may have thought they could go a little easier there."

Thanks in large part to popular interest in the Chinese space program, sci-fi is one of the hottest categories of the moment in China, so the genre isn't expected to be an issue in the Middle Kingdom. But reaching China's 16-35 youth demographic — which accounted for nearly 80 percent of total ticket sales in 2014, according to a report from Beijing-based box-office monitor Ent Group — is absolutely vital.

So, in an effort to bring China's legions of Star Wars neophytes up to speed on the adventures of Luke, Leia and Han Solo, Disney has waged one of the most aggressive and innovative marketing campaigns by a U.S. studio the highly regulated Chinese market has ever seen. 

"They're expecting big numbers in China, and they're not backing away from it," as THR's source puts it.

Disney's first step was to partner with Chinese Internet giant Tencent to make the entire Star Wars saga available for streaming online. In addition to the first six movies, Tencent's digital Star Wars hub also rolled out an array of supplementary content, including shorts, behind-the-scenes features, official merchandise offers and more.

The studio then dispatched a small army of Stormtroopers to climb the Great Wall, creating a set of publicity images that promptly went viral worldwide, followed by the installation of life-size X-wings and TIE fighters in the public plazas of Beijing and Shanghai's most fashionable shopping districts. J.J. Abrams, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega jetted east shortly after Christmas for a glitzy premiere held in Shanghai's Grand Theatre, where an Imax screen was specially built for the event. 

Most savvy of all, perhaps, Chinese pop star Lu Han was recruited to serve as an “honorary Jedi" and local promotional partner. The rising 25-year-old star's boyish looks and influential online brand have earned him a reputation as "China's Justin Bieber," and he has been instrumental in building awareness among the young female Chinese demographic, which wields considerable influence over movie grosses. Han released a music video on Wednesday for his latest single, "Inner Force," which features extensive footage from the film (see it here).

Other efforts have included promotional spots on Running Man, one of China's most watched reality shows, and a specially created set of shareable emoticons for QQ, the instant messaging service preferred by Chinese young people (think Snapchat)

Local industry observers say the efforts appear to be paying off.

"Our ticket presales for Star Wars have been wonderful, much better than other recent Hollywood movies," says Jimmy Wu, chairman and CEO of Lumiere Pavilions, a prestige movie theater chain spanning 30 major Chinese cities. (Reliable, comprehensive ticket presales data wasn't available in China on Thursday.) Wu and other CEOs of China's largest movie theater chains recently predicted to THR, on average, that Force Awakens would gross $277.5 million in China.

Wu added that the movie's delayed release in China — which many observers initially viewed as a liability — has also helped pique curiosity. "Good box-office news from North America and around the world has a big impact on young Chinese audiences," he said.

Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy seems to agree. While in Shanghai with Abrams for the premiere, she said, "Certainly we're hoping and anticipating that it will play very very well here."

Back in 2010, Avatar became China's then-highest-grossing movie ever with a $204 million haul — but the country had far fewer movie screens at the time, when annual box office was just $1.47 billion. Relative to the full-year total, Avatar's China performance was almost unfathomably huge. For Force Awakens to take an equal share of China's full-year box office today — which grew 48.7 percent in 2015 and hit $6.78 billion — it would have to gross just shy of $1 billion over the coming weeks ($940.9 million to be exact). 

However the first Disney Star Wars movie fares, the studio won't be backing off from its campaign to educate the Chinese audience in the ways of the Jedi anytime soon. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, co-starring Chinese action hero Donnie Yen, hits cinemas in less than a year. And when Walt Disney Co.’s long-in-the-making $5.5 billion Shanghai Disneyland Resort opens in the first half of 2016, it will feature an extensive Star Wars zone.

Hyo-won Lee contributed to this report from Seoul.