Disney to find out whether the Force has awakened yet in China

Daisy Ridley (second left) and Mark Hamill (second right), with droids BB-8 (left) and R2-D2 (right) pose on the red carpet for the Chinese premiere of Star Wars: The Last Jedi at the Shanghai Disney Resort on Dec 20, 2017.
Daisy Ridley (second left) and Mark Hamill (second right), with droids BB-8 (left) and R2-D2 (right) pose on the red carpet for the Chinese premiere of Star Wars: The Last Jedi at the Shanghai Disney Resort on Dec 20, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

Shanghai (Bloomberg) - Fans lined the red carpet to see star Daisy Ridley in a bright floral dress. Actor Mark Hamill bowed. A phalanx of Stormtroopers marched, while droid BB-8 rolled in to the delight of the crowd.

It was all part of the show for the Chinese premiere of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, held on Dec 20 at the Shanghai Disney Resort. Walt Disney Co. wants to make a splash in what will be the last major market to see the newest Star Wars film. It hits theaters there on Friday (Jan 5).

The Chinese debut will test whether Disney has made any traction in the country since releasing its first film in the saga, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, two years ago. Hollywood in general has struggled to hold on to its share in China, the world's second-biggest movie market, amid a government-promoted surge in local productions.

Star Wars, which didn't make it to China when it was originally released in 1977, has never had the same rabid following in the country as elsewhere. The Last Jedi crossed the US$1 billion mark in worldwide ticket sales by the end of 2017. Overseas markets in Europe and Japan have done particularly well because they have the "most affinity for Star Wars", said Dave Hollis, Disney's global head of distribution.

Disney would love to see Chinese moviegoers develop the same love for the space saga since it is one of the Burbank, California-based company's biggest franchises.

While The Force Awakens set a United States opening weekend record and eventually generated US$936.7 million domestically, the movie pulled in much less in China. The film's Chinese ticket sales totalled US$124.1 million after its January 2016 debut, making the release only the country's 13th biggest of that year.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, released a year ago, grossed US$69.5 million in China, placing 34th for 2017. That's even with two of the country's biggest stars, martial artist Donnie Yen and cannon-wielding rebel Jiang Wen, in Rogue One.

Disney hasn't disclosed its estimates for the China debut. The studio is vigorously marketing the second installment, but like all Hollywood studios doesn't have the same access to the local media that it enjoys in the US. 

The company is partnering with PepsiCo and Samsung Electronics for a series of events and has done a seven-city mall tour for the movie and its stars. The company is also mounting digital and in-theatre marketing campaigns, strategies that are standard in the US.

"They are hoping for a number higher than Rogue One," said Jason Squire, an associate professor of cinema at the University of Southern California and editor of The Movie Business Book. "They won't say that. Disney has been working very hard on doing that."

While a few releases from US studios, most notably Universal's Fate Of The Furious, generated big numbers in China in 2017, the market share for Hollywood overall was unchanged at about 39 per cent, according to analysis by Rob Cain, publisher of the blog China Film Biz. That's a decline from 49 per cent five years earlier. China favours its domestic industry, he notes, limiting the number of US releases and the dates when they can be shown. Foreign films rarely score release dates during the Lunar New Year, Christmas and Golden Week holidays or the peak summer movie-going season.

Disney has tried to stoke Star Wars demand. The company screened the original six Star Wars movies at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2015. Disney's US$5.5 billion Shanghai resort, which opened in 2016, features a Star Wars exhibit, merchandise and appearances by characters. And Disney brought popular Hong Kong actor Louis Koo to the Dec 20 The Last Jedi premiere - even though he's not in the film - to build awareness among young people who follow him on social media.

"Disney has done that with a bunch of their movies," said Jonathan Papish, an analyst at China Film Insider, a website that reports on the industry.

Even so, Disney's Marvel superhero films, with simpler story lines and universally understood action scenes, do much better in China, according to James Li, co-founder of the Beijing-based consulting firm Fanink Research.

"The majority of Chinese moviegoers did not grow up with the Star Wars franchise and lack understanding of the plot, characters and cultural connotation," Li said. "Therefore the series has received a relatively niche following."