Why Isn’t Star Wars a Big Deal in China?
A bootleg copy of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Can you spot the disturbance in the Force?
Image Credit: Flickr/gemstone

Why Isn’t Star Wars a Big Deal in China?

 
 

It’s not a secret that the United States has been completely engulfed in Star Wars mania. The franchise stirs up deep feelings of nostalgia across multiple American generations and the launch of Star Wars: The Force Awakens this past weekend drew massive crowds. Monday, the CEO of Walt Disney Inc, Bob Iger, told Bloomberg TV that early estimates for the weekend box office take were low and that Disney now expects domestic sales to top $247 million and foreign sales to soar above $281 million for a record opening haul of $528 million — which would sail past previous record-holder Jurassic World, which pulled in $524 million in its opening weekend.

Meanwhile, on a continent not so far away Star Wars is a less powerful force.

Notably, the new Star Wars film has not been released in China yet, contributing to the fact that Jurassic World is set to keep the record for opening weekend foreign sales at $316 million. Star Wars is scheduled to premiere on December 27 at the Shanghai Grand Theater — stars Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, plus director J.J. Abrams, are confirmed to attend — but the movie won’t be widely released in China until January 9.

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It should be noted, also, that the movie has not been released in India either (it will be on December 25). A study commissioned by the MPAA estimated that U.S. & Canadian box offices made $10.4 billion in 2014; with $4.8 billion in box office revenue, China leads among foreign markets, followed by Japan with $2.0 billion. India was tied with the U.K. at $1.7 billion in 2014.

Why does China have to wait until 2016 for Star Wars? The Wall Street Journal speculates that the release was pushed to 2016 because the 2015 quotas for international films had already been filled. A more cynical theory is that Beijing purposefully delays the release of some potential mega-hits, in the hopes that theater goers will simply buy the pirated DVD version — and thus drive down foreign box office revenues (which embarrass Beijing when they soar too far above domestic films’ intake).

The Chinese government closely regulates the import of foreign films. When China joined the WTO in 2001, raising the quota cap was a part of the accession agreement though China has dragged its feet on following through. Access to the massive and growing Chinese market was important enough for the U.S. Trade Representative to initiate a dispute within the framework of the WTO in 2007 leading to a 2012 increase in the Chinese quota for foreign films, from 20 to 34.

Because the Chinese government makes the decision as to which American movies will hit Chinese screens, Hollywood has begun to pay closer attention to what Beijing wants. Chinese censors often decide to cut bits of movies which portray China in a negative light or contain content deemed otherwise offensive.

It’s not clear how the Chinese government feels about the Jedi and the Sith but Chinese moviegoers aren’t necessarily clamoring for the latest Star Wars movie, either. According to Lamplight Analytics, which used social media to gauge Asian interest in the new film, “Japan has the largest and most engaged fan base in the region, Korea the most creative, and China, the most wide eyed, being four decades behind their peers.” The report notes that despite the size of China’s movie market and the millions of Chinese social media users, Star Wars failed to gain traction.

The root of that problem — a lack of excitement some might find disturbing, to paraphrase Darth Vader — is that the original Star Wars were not released in Chinese theaters. The original Star Wars (later subtitled A New Hope) premiered in 1977, a year after the end of Mao’s cultural revolution ended with the Great Helmsman’s death. The original trilogy didn’t hit Chinese movie theaters until June 2015 — though they were available in pirated form and on DVD long before that. Chinese moviegoers are more familiar with the prequel trilogy that so depresses American fans. Perhaps because that is the Star Wars many Chinese were first introduced to, their lack of excitement is understandable.

Maybe, come January 9, the force will finally awaken in China.

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