Will the Force conquer China?

Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill with droids BB-8 R2-D2 at the Chinese premiere of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Joe Chen in a Weibo post. She was arrested after she drove through a red light.
Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill with droids BB-8 R2-D2 at the Chinese premiere of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SHANGHAI • The Last Jedi has conquered pretty much the whole world. But as it opens in China today, will the Force be with the Disney movie?

The studio has prepared for "war". On Dec 20, at a premiere of Star Wars: The Last Jedi at the Shanghai Disney Resort, star Daisy Ridley turned up, as did a phalanx of Stormtroopers and droid BB-8.

The Chinese debut today 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 market, amid a government-promoted surge in local productions.

Star Wars, which did not make it to China when it was originally released in 1977, has never had the same rabid following in the country as elsewhere.

Disney is not leaving things to chance, partnering with PepsiCo and Samsung Electronics for a series of events.

It is also mounting digital and in-theatre marketing campaigns, strategies that are standard in the United States.

While a few releases from US studios, most notably Universal's Fate Of The Furious, generated big numbers in China last year, the market share for Hollywood overall was unchanged at about 39 per cent, said Mr Rob Cain, publisher of the blog China Film Biz. That is a decline from 49 per cent five years earlier.

China favours its domestic industry, he noted, limiting the number of US releases and the dates when they can be shown.

Foreign films rarely score release dates during Chinese New Year, Christmas and Golden Week holidays and the peak summer season.

Disney has tried to stoke Star Wars demand, screening the original six Star Wars movies at the Shanghai International Film Festival in 2015.

Its 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 premiere - even though he is not in the film - to build awareness among young people who follow him on social media.

Even so, Disney's Marvel superhero films, with simpler storylines and universally understood action scenes, do much better in China, according to Mr James Li, co-founder of 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," he added.

"Therefore, the series has received a relatively niche following." 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 05, 2018, with the headline 'Will the Force conquer China?'. Print Edition | Subscribe