Disney's China puzzle unsolved as Solo: A Star Wars Story flops

Solo: A Star Wars Story opened in China over the weekend with about US$10.1 million in box office sales. PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

SHANGHAI (Bloomberg) - Walt Disney Co.'s Shanghai theme park draws millions and some of its films have topped box office sales in China. Yet one of its most lucrative franchises is still a flop in the world's second-biggest cinema market.

Solo: A Star Wars Story opened in China over the weekend with about US$10.1 million (S$13.5 million) in box office sales, behind two films that were not even premiering, according to Disney and Box Office Mojo.

Romantic comedy How Long Will I Love You topped the chart after drawing US$37 million for its debut weekend. The superhero hit from Disney's Marvel: Avengers: Infinity War came second for the May 24-27 period, weeks after its US$191 million opening, data at the Box Office Mojo website show.

China, on track to overtake the U.S. in movie ticket sales by 2020, is an important market for Hollywood films, including some franchises like Universal Pictures' Fast And Furious, which has sometimes generated more revenue in the country than in North America.

That is one reason Disney keeps pushing the Star Wars series in the country, where Solo secured a rare concurrent release with North America, even though it lacks the familiarity won in the U.S. by decades of sequels and prequels since its 1977 premiere.

Grace Jiang, a 30-year-old office worker in Shanghai, said she took a chance on Solo based on the franchise's reputation, but almost dozed off halfway through the film.

"The planets and monsters feel weird," she said at a theatre in north Shanghai's Yangpu district. "Maybe it's cultural differences or something; in general it doesn't suit my taste."

Solo also opened to disappointing weekend sales in the U.S. and Canada, a rare slip for a movie studio that has dominated the box office for almost three years with serial-type adventures. The film collected US$83.3 million in U.S. and Canadian theaters during the first three days of the U.S. Memorial Day weekend, compared with the $108 million estimate by Box Office Mojo.

In China, Disney's earlier installment The Last Jedi, was also beaten out by a local romantic comedy, Huayi Brothers Media Corp.'s The Ex-File 3: Return of the Exes. The Rogue One installment generated US$30 million in its opening, outside the top 100 movie debuts, according to Box Office Mojo, while The Force Awakens was 41st on that list at the time.

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