The assault was swift and sustained: 500 Stormtroopers stood on the Great Wall. X-Wings swooped into Shanghai and Beijing. Lightsabers crackled in theaters across the country.
And millions of moviegoers responded: This again? Who cares?
One after another, “Star Wars” movies have flopped in China, defying efforts to bring one of the most successful franchises in history into a market that has printed money for the heroes, monsters and robots of other films. The latest “Star Wars” movie, “The Rise of Skywalker,” has followed the trend by grossing nearly a billion dollars worldwide and barely breaking $20 million in China.
The episodes that came before it didn’t do much better, for reasons that include history, geopolitics and a distinct lack of the nostalgia that drove viewers in the United States. Thousands of Americans lined up in costumes for each premiere: “The Force Awakens” opened to almost a quarter-billion dollars in the United States in 2015; two years later, “The Last Jedi” made nearly as much; and “The Rise of Skywalker” raked in $177 million in its first few days last month.
Chen Tao, who manages China’s biggest fan website, Star Wars Fans China, estimated that China’s fan clubs have fewer than 200 members in all.
As ticket sales for “The Last Jedi” dwindled in China a few years ago, a college student in Beijing, Xu Meng, told The South China Morning Post that the filmmakers should try new stories, new characters — and a new name. “If the new ‘Star Wars’ sequels were not named after ‘Star Wars,’ it would be better,” she said.
Another student, Lang Yifei, called the series “heavy and gloomy,” adding: “I think they need to give up on the old stories.”
The diminishing returns from the series in China are in spite of Disney’s aggressive marketing efforts. The company deployed miniature Stormtroopers and life-size starfighters, and collaborated with Chinese partners on a host of projects, including translated books and a music video by a Chinese-Korean boy band.
The campaign underscores how much money is at stake in the Chinese film market, now the second largest in the world. The latest “Avengers” movie grossed more than half a billion dollars there, and series like “Transformers” and “The Fast and the Furious” consistently make hundreds of millions of dollars.
The difference, film historians and industry experts said, is that movies like “Hobbs & Shaw” or “Jurassic World” can mostly stand apart from the stories they followed, and that Chinese audiences have grown up with series like Marvel’s comic-book heroes.
But almost no one in China grew up with the original “Star Wars.” When the first films were released in the late 1970s and early ’80s, China was coming out of the Cultural Revolution, an era in which Western entertainment was suppressed and people with ties to the West were persecuted.
“That basically wiped out the first six films of the franchise,” said Michael Berry, a professor of Chinese literature and film at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It didn’t have the opportunity to get its hooks in.”
With “somewhat abstruse, complicated jargons and plots,” said Ying Xiao, a professor of China studies and film at the University of Florida, “it is quite difficult for a Chinese audience who was not raised along with sequels to comprehend, digest and appreciate the attraction.”
And while the first three films inspired untold tons of merchandise — keeping interest alive after the credits rolled — the movies remained essentially unknown in China, except as picture storybooks that riffed on “Star Wars” images with no relation to the movies.
Parents did not pass action figures, lunchboxes or VHS tapes on to their children. By the time the prequel trilogy was released around the turn of the century, with Chinese theaters opening up, Skywalker was still a foreign word.
“Most people would say that Disney did too little too late, that ‘Star Wars’ was dead on arrival,” said Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Chinese society and cinema.
But the company made “semiheroic efforts,” he said, to make its latest films work in China, where the market is tightly regulated and watched by censors.
A spokesman for Disney did not respond to a request for comment.
Ms. Xiao said that the current trade war hampered both Hollywood and the Chinese film industry, saying nationalistic sentiments made it “more challenging and formidable nowadays for films to break down the walls and to cross the national, cultural boundaries.”
China’s box office has recently been dominated by homegrown competitors, Ms. Xiao noted. Those include “Ip Man 4,” the latest in a martial arts saga, and “The Wandering Earth,” an example of “hard” science fiction that Mr. Rosen said is more popular in China than the “science fiction soap opera” of “Star Wars.”
And over the last decade, China’s film industry has matured across production, directing, marketing and acting, said Marc Ganis, the president of the entertainment company Jiaflix. He noted that “Star Wars” had struggled in other Asian countries with tougher competition at home, like Japan and South Korea.
For the “Star Wars” spinoff “Rogue One,” Disney filmmakers cast two stars well-known to Asian audiences — Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen — to small effect.
In a 2018 interview, Mr. Yen attributed the film’s struggles in China to its long back story, which he compared with the relative simplicity — and success — of comic-book movies. “Marvel is a lot easier to understand,” he said. “‘Star Wars,’ there’s a whole universe out there.”
As if to prove his point, “Avengers: Endgame” made more in its 2019 opening weekend in China than all the “Star Wars” premieres combined.
And some selling points of the original trilogy — like the special effects that awed audiences in the ’70s and ’80s — are more charming than revolutionary in the 21st century, said Aynne Kokas, a professor at the University of Virginia and the author of “Hollywood Made in China.”
“‘Star Wars’ in the West is really a kind of generational phenomenon,” she said, “the experience of sharing your experience with your kids.” She noted that the arc of the series was largely about family and full of callbacks, an evolving mythology and generational transitions.
“What we’ve seen is a lot of derivative activity, a lot of derivative characters, efforts to recapture the magic of the original trilogy,” she said. “That hasn’t caught on with audiences” in China.
Ms. Kokas said that the character known as Baby Yoda, from the series “The Mandalorian,” was an example of the franchise trying to recreate its greatest hits. “Yoda is gone, and we’re trying to bring the magic of ‘Star Wars’ into the next generation,” she said.
Daniel Victor and Cao Li contributed reporting.
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