Luke-warm response

Why the latest Star Wars sequel has struggled at the Chinese box office


A jedi night out: latest Star Wars stars Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill

“The Force” did not seem to be with Star Wars when it returned to the Middle Kingdom for the third time at the beginning of 2018 – so much so that 92% of the film’s Chinese screen time was pulled after a tepid debut. The Hollywood production grossed only Rmb251 million ($39 million) in its first 10 days of screening this month – versus $104 million collected on its first day alone in North America.

The Last Jedi, or the eighth episode of the sci-fi series, did not score poorly on Douban, the content-reviewing portal. It got 7.2 out of 10 points. Yet scores of negative remarks online offer some insights as to why the Skywalker saga slumped.

“It’s ridiculous – no end to its rottenness,” said a viewer. “The cast doesn’t look attractive. I am disgusted.”

“You guys see classics. All I see is banality – just like the spaceship [the movie] limped at every turn,” commented yet another disappointed viewer. “Reviving this franchise is a terrible decision. Apart from consuming nostalgia, there is not much significance.”

The Star Wars franchise may have become a cultural touchstone in the English-speaking world since its inception in 1977, but in China it lacks this deep and enduring legacy.

Its first appearance in the country was the much criticised George Lucas prequel Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and the challenge for Disney – which bought the franchise from Lucas in 2012 for $4 billion – has been how to educate China’s millions of moviegoers about the Star Wars universe.

This lack of comprehension – for instance, an unfamiliarity with who Luke Skywalker is and his weighty role in the latest instalment – is widely cited by movie executives to explain why the The Last Jedi has failed to have the same appeal in China as in North America, Europe and elsewhere.

“Because of the complex characters and themes, the prequels, and all of the multi-generational layers that are part of the culture, or cult, of Star Wars, it’s been hard for young Chinese filmgoers to get into the franchise,” James Li, co-founder of Beijing-based market research firm Fanink, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Some viewers also complained that the names of the main characters, such as Princess Leia Organa, are simply too long and unnecessarily complicated when translated into Chinese.

Without the advantage of cultural familiarity, The Last Jedi was trumped at the box office by a Rmb30 million ($4.67 million) local production called The Ex-File: The Return of the Exes. The romantic comedy grossed over Rmb1.6 billion in a similar period. Many viewers said they felt an emotional connection with this tearjerker, which starred Han Geng, who used to be a member of the South Korean boy band Super Junior.

The most disappointing thing for Disney is that its Star Wars franchise is experiencing the opposite of a lightspeed moment in China. The numbers suggest it is getting less popular, in spite of the marketing heft put behind it, including at Shanghai Disneyland. The first of the new genre of Disney films The Force Awakens made $124 million locally in 2015 – perhaps helped by pent-up curiosity about the sci-fi franchise and a strategy of marching 500 stormtroopers to the Great Wall. In 2016 Rogue One reached $69 million, a lower take despite the inclusion of Chinese co-stars Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen. The latest film will likely take even less, with Hollywood Reporter saying the number of screens showing it nationwide has already been slashed.

The Last Jedi’s faltering performance in the world’s second largest film market also reflects shifting tastes – with the most popular film in recent times being the highly patriotic action movie Wolf Warriors 2 which made Rmb5.68 billion in 2017 and saw local audiences applaud as a kick-ass Chinese hero rescued hostages in Africa.

In fact, last year was significant for local studios: domestic films grossed a record Rmb30.19 billion, accounting for 54% of the country’s overall box office. It also saw more Chinese movies grab a place in the top 10 than foreign imports.

As for Disney, it might require some Jedi mind tricks to entice Chinese audiences back to the cinema for forthcoming Star Wars episodes…

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