The awakening

Will the Chinese be as keen on the new Star Wars movie as rest of the world?

Cast member Daisy Ridley arrives at the China Premiere of the film "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in Shanghai

Star Wars star Daisy Ridley

The anticipation for the latest instalment of Star Wars was so great last month that a church in Berlin planned a Star Wars-themed Sunday service, while the airport in Stuttgart encouraged employees to dress as their favourite characters. In the Philippines fans dressed up as stormtroopers and staged carefully choreographed lightsaber duels to celebrate the screening of the seventh movie in the franchise, Star Wars: the Force Awakens.

Last weekend, Star Wars mania was also in full swing in China – where it opened several weeks later than elsewhere in the world (the annual film import quota for foreign movies had already been filled by December 18, when Star Wars 7 made its debut in the US).

On its first day, Disney says the film took an estimated Rmb211 million ($32 million), the biggest opening ever for the studio in China. Modern Life Daily predicts that The Force Awakens, directed by JJ Abrams, could earn a total of $230 million in China. (Fast and Furious 7, last year’s highest-grossing foreign film, made $391 million.)

“With this kind of start and the response we are receiving from those who’ve seen it, we’re very encouraged by the beginning of what should be a very long run and what it represents for the long-term future of the franchise in one of the most important markets in the world,” commented Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis.

The result is surprising, given that few Chinese grew up with Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. In fact, for most Chinese moviegoers, it will be the first time they’ve watched a Star Wars movie. In 1977 when the first feature was released, China was coming out of the Cultural Revolution. When the Star Wars prequels were released in the country between 1999 and 2005, the trilogy made less than $20 million in ticket sales.

One reason for the bigger audiences this time is that Disney has pulled out all the stops to lure people to theatres. To drum up interest for the franchise, the studio offered to screen the first six previous instalments at the Shanghai International Film Festival. It also stationed 500 stormtroopers on the Great Wall while enlisting pop star Lu Han to be its official ambassador for the film. Lu, who is often dubbed China’s answer to Justin Bieber, crafted The Inner Force music video earlier this month that served as an introduction to the sci fi classic’s mythology.

“I don’t know anything about Star Wars but I still went to see the film to support Lu Han,” one fan of the pop idol gushed.

“I knew nothing about Star Wars until I watched the American sitcom Big Bang Theory online two years ago,” one Beijing resident told the South China Morning Post. “I thought I would go to the cinema to find out why those nerds [in the TV sitcom] were so obsessed with the movie.”

Indeed, industry observers reckon that curious young Chinese cinemagoers are embracing The Force Awakens because they’ve heard it’s so successful overseas. “I never saw the Star Wars franchise but I still went to see it because I didn’t want to miss out. Some parts of the film went right over my head. Or maybe it is because I never saw the first six instalments so I was a bit lost throughout the film.” one cinemagoer wrote on weibo.

“My first time watching The Force Awakens and I was so lost. It wasn’t until I went home and read the online reviews that I understood what the film was about,” another admitted.

Disney needs Star Wars to be a success in China. The studio paid $4 billion in 2012 for control of the franchise (by purchasing Lucasfilm) and plans to make four more Star Wars pictures. In addition to ticket sales, there will be merchandising revenues. Star Wars themed rides may also attract visitors to its new Shanghai Disneyland, due to open on June 16.

To ensure that China catches Star Wars fever, Disney has already planned a spin-off local language film Rogue One, which features Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen, two of the biggest names in China’s film industry. The film is scheduled to release in December of this year.

However, Forbes magazine predicts The Force Awakens will have a “good not great” performance in China, taking no more than $150 million at the Chinese box office.

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