LOS ANGELES — While it took the rest of the galaxy by storm, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" faced an uphill climb in China, whose moviegoers had less familiarity with the franchise when it opened there Saturday. And despite a massive PR push by the Walt Disney Co. — including placing 500 Stormtroopers on the Great Wall — the film's performance was lukewarm, with perhaps one saving grace: an outsized performance in Imax theaters.
Weak early presale numbers proved to be an ominous sign, as "Star Wars" failed to resonate with the Chinese public the way it did pretty much everywhere else. Jonathan Papish, an industry analyst for China Film Insider, said the movie likely won't even meet initial estimates of $150 million for its entire run.
"It's not hitting with the new Chinese audiences," he said. "A lot of the young moviegoers who are driving the box office aren’t finding the plot engaging. There's been reports that they're sleeping in the theater."
Papish said the movie did start out pretty strong when it opened on Saturday, which led to some positive Western media coverage. But, he added, Disney's massaging of the message also played a role.
"They called it the biggest Saturday opening ever," he said. "The thing is, movies never open on Saturdays. And it's just been sliding since that opening day."
Papish pointed out that the movie's Saturday gross was just the sixth-biggest Saturday overall, and its Sunday total was down a steep 35 percent from the previous day. And that tepid performance came despite Disney's all-out efforts to promote the film in China, an audience that was closed off from Western media when the original trilogy came out. The Mouse House rolled out its Great Wall spectacle in October and even enlisted Chinese pop star Lu Han to create an official song for the movie, which came out earlier in the week.
A New Hope
However, "Star Wars" wasn’t a total bust in China. Just as it did in the U.S., the movie overperformed at premium-format Imax theaters, of which China will soon be the world leader. Papish called Saturday and Sunday's Imax sales — about $8.1 million out of the $53 million two-day total — "pretty phenomenal." And despite those tales of snoring spectators, Papish said he has seen reports that some theaters added 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. Imax screenings to meet demand, just as they did stateside.
That should be welcome news to Wang Jianlin, the CEO of Dalian Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate that owns Wanda Cinema Line Corp. and AMC Theaters — and is Imax's biggest partner. Dalian Wanda recently acquired a controlling stake in Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion, becoming the first Chinese owner of a Hollywood studio. And Legendary's slate of superhero and action-packed films, such as "Jurassic World" and "The Dark Knight," seem perfectly suited for Imax.
"I think those movies just play well in general in China, but it affected his decision knowing they play well on Imax," Papish said. "I think it was a very smart move by Wang."
And while "Star Wars" didn't make the splash in China that Disney had hoped for, its promotional groundwork could pay dividends down the road. The next movie to come in the "Star Wars" universe, the spinoff "Rogue One," features two known Chinese actors, Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen. Those familiar faces may yet awaken the audience that "Force" evidently put to sleep.