A new approach is needed to make ‘Star Wars’ a ‘force’ in China

BEIJING-Jedi mind tricks don’t work on China.

While Star Wars fans from around the world waited in line for days to catch The Rise of Skywalker, the sci-fi series has struggled to woo filmgoers in the increasingly important Chinese market.

Special previews of the long-awaited Star Wars film in Beijing this week drew just a handful of fans.

Chen Tao is a rare superfan in a country where Friday’s opening day presales were just 12 million yuan ($1.71 million), Xinhua News Agency said, a fraction of the 218 million yuan taken recently on release by a Chinese-made crime drama, according to China Central Television.

The 35-year-old Shanghai resident only became curious about the space saga by accident after stumbling across a pre-installed Star Wars video game on his first computer.

Chen now runs one of China’s biggest online Star Wars fan groups, debating lightsaber physics on the online message board Zhihu and managing a Weibo account with 30,000 followers.

He loves the Star Wars world for its vast scale and rich detail that fans can piece together through movies, books and games.

“Its world is like a jigsaw-puzzle… which feels very magical to me, and inspires a desire to explore this universe,” he says.

But Chen and his fellow fans are rare in China, where cinemagoers instead flock to see Marvel superheroes and domestic films.

The Last Jedi ranked number 47 at the box office in China in 2018, far behind Marvel’s superhero film Avengers: Infinity War at number six, according to Box Office Mojo.

Since buying Star Wars studio Lucasfilm in 2012, Disney has stepped up efforts to gain fans in the world’s fastest-growing movie market.

In October, Disney and Tencent-owned e-book company China Literature announced they would be publishing the first-ever Star Wars novel written specifically for Chinese audiences featuring “Chinese-style expression”.

“We will introduce interpersonal relations and other concepts from Chinese custom into Star Wars,” a China Literature representative said, without providing further details.

Empty screening

The made-for-China Star Wars novel will have to overcome significant obstacles.

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A Beijing bar hosted a screening on Dec 17 of previous Star Wars films ahead of Friday’s China release-but the special room was mostly empty.

The indifference could be explained by the fact that Chinese audiences were introduced to the series in 1999 with the prequel Episode 1: The Phantom Menace-a disappointment to original fans and panned by critics.

“When Star Wars was released worldwide in 1977, it was a real film revolution,” says Steffi Noel, an analyst from Shanghai-based market research firm Daxue Consulting.

“Each new episode of Star Wars is linked to a craze, a nostalgia,” Noel says.

But most Chinese viewers never formed this nostalgic bond with the movies.

In 1977, as foreign audiences were introduced to George Lucas’ Skywalker saga, China had little access to Western popular culture.

The three original films were only finally shown at a Shanghai film festival in 2015.

‘Old technology’

By the time Chinese audiences were introduced to the franchise, “the technology seemed old”, Fan Yunxin, from a Beijing-based science fiction reading group, says.

“Space opera isn’t really something Chinese people related to,” Fan says, adding while she likes the films, she didn’t know of any “hardcore” fans.

Alex Hu, a 24-year-old science fiction fan, says he was unimpressed with the visual effects.

“I would say a lot of fight scenes in Star Wars are similar,” he says.

Chen says Chinese sci-fi fans tend to prefer “hard” science fiction that focuses on scientific theory and have high demands for a story’s logical consistency, but Star Wars was more like a “Roman empire tale that had been moved into space”.

When he first watched one of the films, he was amazed by how casually alien and human characters coexisted in the Star Wars universe, something he had never encountered before in a science fiction film.

Noel believes that Disney needs to rebrand Star Wars to sell the franchise in China.

“What they need to sell it now is a new story,” she says.

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