During Lucasfilm's Disney era, the revamped Star Wars film franchise has seen tremendous box office success, but the market of China constantly eludes them. In the 21st century, the Middle Kingdom has become the second-largest movie market in the world, trailing only the United States. As a result, studios have deemed the country an area of importance, since landing a hit in China can be the difference between flopping and being moderately profitable (just ask Pacific Rim). And for those surefire blockbusters like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a lucrative run in China can just pad the bottom line and generate even more profits. As evidenced by Avengers: Infinity War scoring a $200 million Chinese opening weekend, that market is still a valuable resource.
Curiously, Marvel's Mouse House brethren Lucasfilm has struggled mightily since the series returned in 2015 with The Force Awakens. Each new installment has grossed progressively less in China. Rogue One earned just $69.4 million of its $1 billion total there, while The Last Jedi flamed out in two weeks time. This month's Solo: A Star Wars Story, which is already having a rough go at it domestically, came up with just $3 million in its opening day. So what gives? We try to unpack why Star Wars can't seem to make money in China.
The simple explanation is that the Star Wars brand is not as relevant in China as it is in other places around the world. When the galaxy far, far away first became a cultural phenomenon in 1977, the Chinese film market was not a major player in the industry. In fact, the original trilogy was never theatrically released in China. The first Star Wars movie to play in the country was The Phantom Menace, which made a paltry $4.1 million. The subsequent prequels did a little better (Attack of the Clones, $5.4 million; Revenge of the Sith $9.1 million), but neither of those numbers are all that eye-catching. Chinese moviegoers do not have the attachment to the franchise to truly care about a new installment when it debuts. But since so many other tentpoles do well there, why is Star Wars the outlier?
It may boil down to how the new movies have been marketed. There's no denying the Disney era films lean heavily on nostalgia and familiar elements during promotion. The money shot of the Force Awakens trailer was Han telling Chewie they were home. Rogue One revolves around the Death Star plans. The Last Jedi places an onus on Luke Skywalker. And Solo is all about Han Solo's youth. While Episode VII was designed as a soft reboot and the anthology films are considered standalone stories, they're still dependent on prior knowledge to fully appreciate. Since the original trilogy bypassed China completely, they lack the connection to make an impact. Perhaps Rian Johnson's new trilogy and the David Benioff/D.B. Weiss series will prove to be more accessible entry points since they're entirely separate from the Skywalker saga.
To their credit, Lucasfilm has tried to boost Star Wars' appeal in China. The castings of Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang in Rogue One were seen in some circles as an attempt to attract Chinese viewers, and they completely removed Star Wars from Solo's Chinese title. Neither of those gambits paid off, and it's worth wondering if Lucasfilm should even bother with Chinese releases in the future. Of course, every little bit helps, but Star Wars' Chinese totals are barely a blip on the radar (Last Jedi goes from $1.3 billion to $1.2 billion when China's taken out). The studio could probably save a little in distribution costs by skipping China completely. It's possible for genre pictures to be massive hits without Chinese ticket sales (see: Deadpool), so they're not an absolute necessity.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: Episode IX (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019