Box Office: 'Star Wars' Is An Unknown Force in China

Star Wars the Force Awakens New 3 - H 2015
Courtesy of Lucasfilm

With many questioning how J.J. Abram's 'The Force Awakens' will perform in the world's second-biggest movie market, THR asked the leaders of China's largest cinema chains to make predictions.

With $50 million in North American tickets sales a month before its opening, and some analysts predicting as much as $2.7 billion in global box office, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is all but certain to be a smash hit.

But J.J. Abram's reinvigoration of the fabled franchise faces a crucial, nagging question: China.

The country is now the world's second-largest movie market — and expected to overtake North America as number one in less than three years — so Disney needs a reasonably strong performance from The Force Awakens there, both to satisfy shareholders in the near term and to build an audience for the myriad Star Wars sequels and spinoffs in the pipeline.

But unlike in most markets around the world, Star Wars' prospects in China are vexingly murky.

The film opens there on Jan. 9, three weeks after its international rollout in North America and most other markets.

The world's most famous movie franchise is also surprisingly unknown in China. The original three films never received a wide theatrical release in the country, meaning Chinese movie fans of all ages harbor little of the Star Wars nostalgia that lurks in the hearts of millions of filmgoers elsewhere. When George Lucas's original Star Wars came out in 1977, China was just emerging from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution — the adventures of Luke, Leia and Lord Vader were indeed a galaxy far, far away from the everyday concerns of the country's mostly impoverished population.

Piracy later brought the first films to China in patchy fits, but the extent of their exposure is unknown. 

Although it might sound blasphemous to die hard fans, the Star Wars prequels have a wider following in the Middle Kingdom. Brought out by 20th Century Fox as China was well into its age of opening, Episodes 1-3 achieved progressively better traction at the emerging local box office: The Phantom Menace (1999), 33 million Chinese yuan ($5 million in today's dollars, but considerably less at the time); Attack of the Clones (2002), $7.2 million; Revenge of the Sith (2005), $11.7 million.

Disney has mounted an ambitious marketing campaign in China to try to bring local viewers up to speed, while also instilling some of the retroactive nostalgia that has helped its Marvel comic book franchises do such huge business (Avengers: Age of Ultron is currently the fourth highest-grossing film of 2015 at $240 million).

In October, Disney and 20th Century Fox signed a deal with Chinese online giant Tencent making all six films in the franchise available for streaming via the company's popular online video services. Shortly after, Disney placed 500 Stormtroopers on China's Great Wall, creating a set of promotional images that promptly went viral in China and around the world. Disney has also signed digital marketing and merchandising deals with Mtime, which runs one of China's most popular movie websites and mobile ticketing platforms.

The studio recently hired Chinese pop star Lu Han to be an "official ambassador" for The Force Awakens. Owing to his boyish looks, moppy hair and influential online brand, Han is occasionally referred to as "China's Justin Bieber." Disney is undoubtedly hoping he can help the film connect with the local market's increasingly vital young female demographic.

Disney has suggested that more high-profile promotional plans are in the works.

Still, some in the investor community have expressed concern that it might not be quite enough. On Friday, Disney's stock dipped 2.55 percent in its fifth consecutive day of declines, after Barclays analysts argued that the high expectations surrounding The Force Awakens might lead to investor disappointment, in part because the franchise is an unknown quantity in important international territories such as China.

Social media analytics firm Lamplight, meanwhile, issued a report Monday showing that online chatter about The Force Awakens in the country has been lagging behind neighboring Japan and South Korea, where the Star Wars brand has deeper history.

"While China is on track to become the biggest movie market in 2017, Star Wars failed to gain as much traction as in [Japan and South Korea] online, despite China’s massive number of social media users," the report said.

To get a clearer picture of The Force Awakens' China prospects, The Hollywood Reporter took the question to those on the front lines of the country's booming box office: the CEOs of China's largest movie theater chains. 

Here are their predictions:

Zeng Maojun, president of Wanda Cinemas — China's largest theater group, operating an estimated 2,000 screens. 

"Star Wars will have a bigger impact in the U.S., because it means more to older generations there. To do well in China, it is the opposite: it has to reach young people ... I'll estimate $230 million. If it's effective at reaching the younger demographic — what we call the post-90s generation, which now make up 60 percent of China's box office — it could do even better." 

Yu Xin, CEO of Dadi Cinema Group — China's second-largest cinema chain, with 276 cinemas operating 1,300 screens.

"It will definitely be successful; the only thing we're waiting to see is just how successful. I'm quite confident it will break $310 million (2 billion Chinese yuan). Our young people love science fiction right now and I'm sure it will have an exciting, optimistic story. It will influence a new generation in China and create great potential for the future Star Wars films."

Lu Yao, chairman and president of UME Cinemas — one of China's longest-running movie theater groups, today operating 400 screens in 25 cinemas across the country.

"The Star Wars [prequel] movies did quite well in China when they were released, and our screen count and box office has grown by more than ten times since then. With that background in mind, I think The Force Awakens will sell roughly the same number of tickets as Transformers: Age of Extinction, [which amounted to $320 million in 2014]."

Jimmy Wu, chairman and CEO of Lumiere Pavilions — a prestige chain with 30 cinemas spread across 30 major Chinese cities, known for attracting an upscale clientele particularly interested in Hollywood imports.

"We're a smaller chain, but our audience is more attracted to these sorts of films. $200 million to $300 million is my prediction. The foreign promotion is having some impact, at least to our audience. The people who come to our cinemas like U.S. TV shows like Big Bang Theory, which has increased their awareness of Star Wars."