Star Wars is possibly the most bulletproof franchise of all time when it comes to box office numbers. Each film — with one minor exception — has brought in at least $200 million during its domestic run in theaters. Star Wars has always seemed like the easiest financial win at the movies.
But, with Disney’s acquisition of the property and dedication to blockbuster budgets, they are finding that one territory doesn’t have the same enthusiasm for that galaxy far, far away.
The China Syndrome
The Middle Kingdom has proven a very difficult challenge for the House of Mouse when it comes to Star Wars. Why exactly? Because the original films were not released in China during their initial runs. Therefore, the nostalgia factor that plays so heavily into Star Wars simply isn’t there on a cultural level for Chinese audiences.
So, Disney has pumped a lot of dollars into marketing these new Star Wars films in China. They staged a huge event where 500 Stormtroopers posed on top of the Great Wall of China. They have sunk a ton of money into promoting these new films. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to have paid off. The Last Jedi struggled to open in second place for Chinese audiences. Rogue One featured popular Chinese actors Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen and was still unable to crack $70 million in China. That’s less than half of what Rogue One made during its opening weekend in the states.
Considering that China has become the driving force for a number of Hollywood blockbuster franchises — the Transformers series has been propelled heavily by Chinese audiences — what does this mean for the future of Star Wars?
Stay on Target, or Unlearn What You’ve Learned?
There are a few routes which the franchise can take. The most likely one is that Disney continues its current path and tries to market these movies in big ways to Chinese audiences. But, that also means they have to keep making Star Wars films that might appeal to Chinese tastes. That could limit the potential for smaller scale Star Wars films since an epic scope and a “theme park ride” feeling is crucial to selling American blockbusters to Chinese moviegoers. The top American films distributed in China in 2017 were The Fate of the Furious and Transformers: The Last Knight. That should tell you something.
However, if Disney/Lucasfilm decides to cut their losses in China when it comes to marketing, it’s possible that the door could open up for Star Wars films that are more targeted to American audiences. Part of the desire to make films out of familiar plot elements — the Death Star, Han Solo etc. — stems from trying to mine a cultural cache with as global an audience as possible. If Disney/Lucasfilm abandons that approach, could we get more projects like Rian Johnson’s proposed new trilogy?
No matter what happens, Star Wars has a tough puzzle to solve with the Chinese film market. When The Last Jedi opens to less than $30 million — that’s the lowest opening in China for these new Star Wars films — something clearly isn’t working. What do you think the solution might be? I don’t have a solid answer but I’d love to hear your thoughts!