Why ‘Star Wars’ Keeps Bombing in China
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.
《星球大战》（Star Wars）是历史上最成功的系列电影之一，然而，尽管努力打入中国，它在这个为其他电影中的英雄、怪兽和机器人贡献了大量票房的市场接连遭遇惨败。最新的《星球大战》电影《天行者崛起》（The Rise of Skywalker）仍未摆脱这一趋势，在全球范围内获得了近10亿美元的票房，在中国的票房只是勉强突破了2000万美元。
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.
之前几部也好不到哪里去，原因包括历史、地缘政治，以及中国观众明显缺乏美国观众的那种怀旧情绪。2015年，《原力觉醒》（The Force Awakens）在美国的首映票房接近2.5亿美元；两年后，《最后的绝地武士》（The Last Jedi）也取得了同样的成绩；《天行者崛起》（The Rise of Skywalker）上月上映的头几天就获得了1.77亿美元的票房。
In China, those movies opened to $52 million, $28 million and $12 million, respectively.
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.
这样的行动突显出在中国电影市场赚钱有多么重要。这里目前已是全球第二大电影市场。最新的《复仇者联盟》（Avengers）系列电影在中国的票房收入超过5亿美元，《变形金刚》（Transformers）和《速度与激情》（The Fast and Furious）等系列电影的票房收入持续达到数亿美元。
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.
电影历史学家和业内专家表示，区别在于《速度与激情：特别行动》（Hobbs & Shaw）和《侏罗纪世界》（Jurassic World）这样的续集基本上可以独立于前作而存在，而且中国观众是伴随着漫威（Marvel）漫画英雄等系列影片长大的。
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.”
“这样一来整个系列的前六部基本上就被抹去了，”加州大学洛杉矶分校（University of California, Los Angeles）中国文学与电影教授白睿文（Michael Berry）说，“没机会让人对这个产生瘾头。”
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.”
这部电影“有些深奥、复杂的术语和情节”，佛罗里达大学（University of Florida）中国研究与电影教授肖莹说。“对于没有看过整个系列的中国观众来说，很难理解、消化和欣赏它的魅力。”
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.”
弗吉尼亚大学教授、《中国制造好莱坞》（Hollywood Made in China）一书的作者孔安怡（Aynne Kokas）说，正传三部曲的一些卖点——比如在70年代和80年代令观众叹为观止的特效——到了21世纪更多的是可爱，没有什么革命性。
“‘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.