LOS ANGELES -- With advance ticket sales shattering records and brands embracing almost every "Star Wars" promotional tie-in imaginable, the Walt Disney Company has to feel pretty good about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” being a smash hit at home. But in China, soon to be home to the world’s largest movie market -- and where the first three “Star Wars” films never played widely in theaters -- the prognosis is less clear.
Disney has launched an aggressive marketing offensive, screening the trailer on the Great Wall -- and putting 500 Stormtroopers on it -- and enlisting a local pop star as a cultural ambassador, but there will be plenty of eyes on the Chinese box office when the film opens there on Jan. 9.
Jonathan Papish, an industry analyst for China Film Insider, said it’s hard to gauge exactly how the film will do, but if it’s successful, it will be because of largely the same blueprint the movie’s marketing has followed back home: premium viewing experiences such as IMAX 3D, a holiday season release date -- and selling all kinds of “Star Wars” merchandise.
The movie’s message should help, too. Papish said the “Star Wars” movies actually have a lot in common with traditional Chinese martial arts films, which have a proven appeal to its moviegoers -- and require no translation from Disney.
“It’s got universal themes any Chinese person can understand,” he said. “A master and apprentice. There are a lot of Chinese elements built in that will help appeal to the audience.”
It’s relatively more expensive to go to the movies in China than in the U.S., but Baizhu Chen, a finance professor at the University of Southern California who focuses on the Chinese market, doesn’t think that’s going to be much of a factor. If the Chinese moviegoer base -- namely, people between about 20 and 35 living in major cities -- is excited about something, they buy tickets.
“Taylor Swift just had a show in Shanghai,” Chen said. “All three nights were sold out, and ticket prices are the same as here.”
And just as showings at IMAX-equipped theaters have proven the most popular in the American market, Papish expects the same to be the case in China. The country’s added hundreds of IMAX screens recently, and “The Force Awakens” will be a reason for many upwardly mobile young people in places like Shanghai and Guangzhou to pay for that experience.
“Premium price tickets will be a big draw for this movie,” Papish said. “Those are booming. And they’re pretty easy to find, especially in the coastal cities.”
“Star Wars” is also a fairly known quantity in China, despite the fact that it debuted when China’s market for Western media was locked shut. So while Disney needs to educate the Chinese audience more than the American audience, it doesn't need to start from zero. Chen said that "Star Trek," for example, is not popular in China at all, but people know "Star Wars." He added that when he introduces himself in China as a representative of USC, plenty of people aren’t familiar with the school, but there’s always a reaction when he mentions that it’s George Lucas’ alma mater.
“I think most people have gotten to know the originals through piracy and bootleg DVDs and amongst young people, they’re very popular,” Papish said. There’s also the fact that the Star Wars prequels performed fairly well at the Chinese box office, hitting local theaters when the country’s box office was just starting its exponential growth.
“They had impressive results when they came out,” Papish said. “There is some recognition there.”
The movie’s January release -- which comes in the middle of China’s winter break -- should pay dividends as well. Not only do young Chinese have more time to see the movie, but hearing about the hype elsewhere in the world should spark interest.
“Chinese people are reading more Western headlines about hype with movies, and our audience breaking records will get them interested,” Papish said. “It’s also a short enough time frame where it won’t realy be affected by piracy.”
And despite China’s reputation for knockoff products, Chen said he expects there to be a robust market for official Star Wars merchandise among the same demographic that’s going to be seeing the film.
“The emerging middle class doesn’t want the fake stuff anymore,” Chen said. “They want the authentic merchandise.”
Wall to Wall
Disney isn’t relying on just the movie and its reputation to ensure the Force awakens the Chinese box office. The company’s also added some Chinese elements to its promotion, such as enlisting local pop star Lu Han as an official “ambassador” for the movie. It’s a move intended to boost the film’s profile, especially with the female audience. But Papish isn’t sold.
“It remains to be seen how successful this ambassador will be,” he said. “A lot of the comments are more about him and not the movie.”
Papish gave more credit to Disney’s Great Wall promotion, which he said was definitely a spectacle for the foreign press, but did seep down into the Chinese market.
He also doesn’t think there’s anything objectionable politically or culturally in the movie’s subject matter. He said while the American audience might be shocked that the Chinese audience wouldn’t immediately see parallels between its authoritarian government and the Empire, the average couple having a date night at a Shanghai IMAX wouldn’t see things that way. And Chen pointed out that the government’s censors cleared the film, so nothing too controversial could have been in there.
There was a recent decision by Disney to de-emphasize new main character Finn, played by black British actor John Boyega, in the official Chinese promotional poster. Some critics called the move racist, but Papish said that was a little bit of a Western media overreaction.
“Clearly someone at Disney left that out, but that’s not a reflection of Chinese society as a whole,” Papish said. “They are fans of Will Smith and Denzel Washington. And later in the week, Disney released character posters with one featuring John Boyega. That didn’t make headlines like the main poster.”