Star Wars Failure to Launch in China and Looking Ahead

Here I was, minding my own business about to write a blog post for the fifth anniversary of the release of The Force Awakens when a timely news article dropped in my lap:

IGN article

Because, while it has been five years since The Force Awakens broke all kinds of domestic and global box office records, it has also been almost five years (the film did not release in China until January 2016) of the beginning of consecutive box office disasters in the Middle Kingdom. Having failed to spark significant interest with Chinese audiences from the sequel trilogy, Disney is trying again, this time with publishing. It was announced that Lucasfilm publishing would be releasing a China-Exclusive Star Wars novel that takes place, like the upcoming The Acolyte series, during the time of The High Republic era. The web-novel, title The Vow of Silver Dawn, takes place in a “unique sector” and will focus on the Jedi dealing with “the strange relationships with sectors in the Outer Rim.” Here we go. There will no doubt be mixed reaction to this news with some fans crying “pander” but I call it “strategic readjustment.” So, is this new strategy of China-Exclusive engagement with The High Republic content better? Let’s look at why the Disney Star Wars films failed in China and why publishing might succeed. 

Economic Context in the United States: During the six years of the original Star Wars trilogy from 1977-1983, America recovering from a recession, dealing with high inflation and interest rates, and transitioning from a Jimmy Carter presidency to Ronald Reagan. By the time Return of the Jedi was released in theaters in 1983, Reaganomics had seeped into corporate America. Films and movie theaters had also shifted, reflecting the socio-political climate, into the era of “New Hollywood”. Movie studios were betting big on “calculated blockbusters” that were focused on profit by consisting of feel-good content versus self-conscious dramas and satirical black comedies (Bonnie and Clyde, Network, etc.)*. These films focused on simpler plots, emphasized visual effects, and had massive marketing campaigns at the time. And equally as important, wider theatrical release. Theaters, meanwhile, were also expanding to meet growing attendance and were getting into technological advances in surround sound with Dolby Stereo, making the theatrical experience for blockbuster films even more appealing. It was during this time when Star Wars toys sales were also at their highest, and before the stock market crash of 1987, that Star Wars was the biggest franchise in the US and, by default, the world. 

Economic Context in The People’s Republic of China: After the death of Mao Zedong, the Chairman of the Communist Party, and the Cultural Revolution, it was a more dire economic situation in China. Beginning with Hua Guofeng and continuing under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China began breaking its international isolation by establishing and building relationships regionally and implementing a socialist market economy (building on increasing domestic productivity and foreign investment). In 1979, China officially established diplomatic relations with the United States (there had been efforts before 1979 that had stalled due to Watergate and President Nixon’s subsequent resignation). Deng’s power and influence grew and paved the way for China to become one of the fastest-growing economies in the world in the coming decades. 

This is the long way to say that the avenues for Star Wars to build brand loyalty and lifelong fans (optimal viewing experiences in exhibition and merchandise) that were flooding the US market were not yet present in China. That ideal situation would happen much later and be given to another Disney acquisition, Marvel.

By the time Avengers hit theaters in 2012, box office receipts in China had hit $1.5B and the country was in the midst of a multiplex building binge. Chinese audiences, especially younger movie-goers, grew up with MCU heroes like Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, and Captain America. Everything was converging for the mega success of Avengers: Endgame in 2019, which grossed a ridiculous $629M in its theatrical run in China. These are numbers that the Star Wars sequel trilogy, which grossed a total of about $187M, could only dream to make. So, what happened? It wasn’t a lack of optimal viewing experiences as there were more theaters than ever before when The Force Awakens hit Chinese theaters. 

Original trilogy Stormtroopers for a Sequel trilogy promotion event at The Great Wall | credit Lucasfilm ltd.

The answer has been the focus of other industry articles- there is no attachment to the Star Wars characters or universe because Chinese audiences did not grow up going to the movies to see Star Wars in the 70s and 80s, or the Prequels in the late 90s and early 2000s. Mass movie-going didn’t really start to take off in China until around 2010, five years after Revenge of the Sith (the number of theaters increased from 2k in 2010 to 11k+ in 2019**). The lack of success also translated to the standalone films Rogue One and Solo (which grossed a total of $69M and $16.4M respectively). There is just little to no interest in these characters. And the minimal effort of putting Asian faces on screen, including megastar Donnie Yen, didn’t work because Chinese audiences are used to seeing Chinese faces on the big screen. It is not a novelty like it is for Asian-Americans. All their marketing efforts and money spent on promoting the sequel trilogies in the Middle Kingdom were left with very little to show for.

So, what is the solution? Because the answer is not giving up on the biggest global box office market. The below video of Chinese movie-goers has some keen insights:

credit South China Morning Post

So – more optimism and less connection to old characters with new characters and new stories? Well, hello The High Republic! An era with plenty of Jedi and peace and expansion in the galaxy that is edging toward a new war and not in the middle of the old one. Also, new characters and new stories and a name that takes center stage over the franchise (did The Age of Republic, Rebellion, or Resistance feature heavily on marketing materials the way that The High Republic does?).

Promotional material of the web novel including cover art | credit Lucasfilm ltd.

While establishing a large fanbase through publishing isn’t as ideal as a flashy film experience, it is not unprecedented. The Chinese translations of the first three Harry Potter books were released in China in 2000, two years before Warner Brothers released the first film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. While Philosopher’s Stone and the franchise overall did not do as well as franchises that came out post-2010, given the situations I highlighted earlier, the book’s sales were still incredibly strong. So, when Philosopher’s Stone had a recent rerelease in China, the film was able to exceed its original release numbers, accumulating an additional $13M+ in the first three days, and lure audiences back into the theaters with a chance to see the first film in a beloved book franchise. It also helped the film cross the $1B mark worldwide. If The High Republic can get Chinese audiences interested and engaged with Star Wars, it could lead to a ripple effect and get more people into the original, prequel, and sequel trilogies. Lucasfilm realizes this and is taking a different approach by releasing a China-Exclusive novel (currently with no intention of translating for other markets) but tying it to the overall canon so, if it does take off in China, there will be other novels ready and waiting. And then possibly films, as Disney+ is not available in China so The Acolyte would not be an option unless Disney works out some sort of distribution deal for their shows. Because, as much money as Disney/Lucasfilm is making off of Baby Yoda merchandise in the US and other markets, think of how much money they could be making from Chinese audiences. How many missed opportunities for officially licensed lightsabers, action figures, clothing, backpacks and everything in between that could be sold in Chinese stores and on Chinese retail sites? Not to mention the two Disney Theme Parks in Hong Kong and Shanghai that could have a Galaxy’s Edge of their own selling even more merchandise. Disney and Lucasfilm won’t give up trying to engage with Chinese audiences because they can’t, there is just too much money at stake not to keep trying from a business standpoint. This exclusive novel from The High Republic is the first stepping stone towards a larger strategic shift in Disney’s approach to Star Wars in China. After all, Chinese audiences and fandoms probably want the same thing that fandoms in other countries want- the ability to talk about their favorite franchise and characters online with like-minded people domestically and across the world. Marvel has given that to them. Star Wars can get there but they’ll need to essentially start from scratch. And all eyes are on The High Republic

Additional Sources: 

*Hollywood’s Major Crisis and the Film “Renaissance” 

**Number of cinemas in China from 2010 to 2019

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