'Star Wars 7' tries to win Chinese market

As "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" opens this weekend in most of the world's markets, Walt Disney Studios has another uphill battle to fight as the company tries to win audiences' hearts in the world's second largest film market.

The Chinese release date of the new installment of the "Star Wars" saga is set for Jan. 9, 2016. Disney announced last week that director J.J. Abrams, leading actors Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, as well as producer Kathleen Kennedy will attend the China premiere on Dec. 27 in Shanghai.

However,Chinese audiences aren’t as excited for the film as audiences in Western countries are. When George Lucas's original "Star Wars" debuted in 1977, China had just ended its Cultural Revolution and hadn't opened to the world. Though the original trilogy never saw a wide release, they were screened at some small film events and film archives.

Years later, 20th Century Fox eventually got the prequels, Episodes 1-3, to screen in China before and after the new millennium. "The Phantom Menace" (1999) earned US$5 million, "Attack of the Clones" (2002) took in US$7.2 million and "Revenge of the Sith" (2005) grossed US$11.7 million in the Chinese market, which has not expanded much by today’s standard. Although the numbers are less impressive, it was worth noting that the 3 episodes' box office results were ranked as No. 1, No. 3 and No. 2 respectively as China’s highest grossing foreign films during the year they were released.

As China has become the second biggest market in the world and is likely to surpass North America in the next several years, Disney has to weigh how China's performance will affect the blockbuster's worldwide box office numbers.

In June, all 6 episodes of "Star Wars" were screened at the Shanghai International Film Festival, as the first step to include Chinese audience and fans into the Star Wars universe. Disney then lavished a promotional event at China's landmark Great Wall in October.

Zeng Maojun, President of China's largest theater group Wanda Cinemas, also suggested that in China, the nostalgia sentiment card is not the one to play to draw audiences, instead, the studio should seek to reach young people. If this plays out, "I'd estimate US$230 million at the box office," he said.

The marketing team in Disney may have heard him. They asked China's teen idol, actor and singer Lu Han to be the promotional ambassador and shot a commercial. Lu, though having incredible fame and a large group of fans, was not the one that all Chinese die-hard Star Wars fans really liked or approved of. "Some of Lu's brain-damaged fans even said 'Star Wars' is hot because of Lu Han. What!?!, " one fan wrote on Weibo, "I understand the studio is trying to earn more profits and generate hype, but at least find an ambassador next time who really knows the culture of 'Star Wars.'"

To educate Chinese audiences and please fans, Disney also held a special Star Wars exhibition in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou. It even made a special international trailer for the Chinese market with new scenes and dialogues to paint plotlines and characters in a clearer light for Chinese to understand. The trailer was hailed by movie fans even outside China as the best Star Wars trailer for the new film.

In mid-November, a small group of Chinese reporters and guests were invited to J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot Productions and Lucasfilm to get a sneak peek at 10-minute footage of the film and have an interview with Abrams himself.

The director said to reporters there that although not everyone in China has seen the previous Star Wars films, they do recognize a few classic cultural images and have impressions of the universe, such as Darth Vader, light sabers, and more through video games, cartoons and friends. He was not worried about China's fan base but focused more on how to build a deeply appealing story and make people care, laugh and cry, as well as being eager to know what's next for the characters' fate. In any case, the light side vs dark side theme will never be outdated.

Abrams' approach worked incredibly. After the grand premiere in Los Angeles on Monday, rave reviews have flooded every social networking platform. On the movie rating site RottenTomatoes.com, 94 percent of 179 film critics liked the film and rated it "fresh," "Packed with action and populated by both familiar faces and fresh blood, 'The Force Awakens' successfully recalls the series' former glory while injecting it with renewed energy," the critics’ consensus said.

"The Force Awakens," starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, and Andy Serkis, was co-produced by Lucasfilm and Bad Robot Productions and will be distributed worldwide by Walt Disney Studios.

Presales have surpassed a staggering US$100 million in North America and made history as movie fans have sky-high expectations. The film will start to screen on Thursday night in America. Several other markets, such as France, have seen it debut with record-breaking numbers. The opening weekend will be a record-shattering weekend, while industry insiders predict it will gross north of US$200 million in the U.S. alone and repeat viewing business and good word-of-mouth may help it beat "Avatar" by James Cameron.

In China, nothing is certain, but it will at least perform decently as a Hollywood blockbuster. China Film Co.Ltd. and Huaxia Film Distribution will jointly distribute the film in China.

To add Chinese flavor to China's premiere, Disney also announced Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen will join the force for the event in Shanghai at end of this month. Yen is one of the stellar cast members of the upcoming "Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One," a standalone story, -- but a part of the Star Wars universe that Disney paid US$4.05 billion to explore, -- of resistance fighters who united to steal the plans of the dreaded Death Star. The film is slated for a Dec. 16, 2016 release while another Chinese actor-and-director Jiang Wen is also in the cast.

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