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The Star Wars franchise is a massive phenomenon. China is a major market for movies. It seems like a given that the combination would represent a massive success. Instead, China is one of the weakest box office markets for the Star Wars films and the related merchandising. The reasons for this somewhat surprising global marketing failure are varied, involving the nation’s history, consumer preferences, and cultural influences and pride.

When Star Wars: A New Hope (Episode IV) first premiered in 1977, China was still largely closed to any international influences or imports. Foreign films were not welcome, so consumers never experienced the excitement of the new mythology pitting good versus evil or the (at the time) cutting-edge special effects of lightsabers and X-Wing fighters. The next two films, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi, similarly arrived during the Cultural Revolution era. Thus, Chinese consumers never gained familiarity with the backstory of Luke and Leia, nor did they start collecting memorabilia and toys.

By the time the second trilogy came to theaters, moviegoers in the West could barely wait, but those in China could barely raise any interest. That trend has continued with the most recent trilogy. For example, The Force Awakens (Episode VII, released 2015) and The Last Jedi (Episode VIII, 2017) each earned around one-quarter of a billion dollars in the United States but just $52 million and $28 million, respectively, in China. Most recently, The Rise of Skywalker brought in about $177 million in U.S. revenues in its first month, but a mere $12 million in China. In contrast, competing movie franchises, such as the Fast and the Furious entries or the Avengers series, perform substantially better in China. Avengers: Endgame, for example, brought in more than half a billion dollars just from Chinese audiences.

The reason is not a lack of trying by Disney, which owns Star Wars. Its marketing efforts in China have been extensive and aggressive. For The Rise of Skywalker for example, it commissioned a music video by a popular boy band and made a trove of translated books available. Its scheduled marketing events involved 500 Stormtroopers, posted on The Great Wall, as well as life-sized starfighters available for access and free lightsabers handed out to ticketholders in theaters. And still the movie flopped.

The explanation, as noted, has a lot to do with nostalgia. Other, more recent movie franchises do not rely, as Star Wars does, on parents introducing their children to a storyline that they loved and embraced when they were children themselves. But it also reflects some cultural differences with regard to what consumers prefer in their entertainment content. Many Chinese consumers regard the complex plots and jargon-heavy dialogue of the Star Wars universe as unappealing and difficult to follow. Without a foundation in the series’ backstory and concepts, they also find the characters’ motives and the drivers of the action hard to understand. Furthermore, as many film scholars have noted, the Star Wars mythology aligns closely with traditional Western and Judeo-Christian themes, which are less familiar, appealing, and embraced in a Confucian culture such as China.

In contrast, the Avengers or the Fast and the Furious films are designed explicitly to be able to stand on their own. Their plots also rely less on mythological themes of an ongoing battle between the parallel forces of good and evil. Thus, viewers might benefit from greater insights and enjoy the Easter eggs implanted into the different movies if they are familiar with all of the entries. But they also can easily derive enjoyment from the adventures and explosions on screen, even without a foundation of knowledge about the world in which those exciting actions take place.

A final reason for the fall of the Jedi in China stems from consumers’ growing sense of national pride. China’s movie industry is expanding substantially, offering viewers more homegrown films and plots that cite the country’s own mythologies and traditions. One researcher also argues that in general, Chinese viewers prefer “hard” science fiction over the “soap opera–like” science fiction that Star Wars provides. Thus local entries like The Wandering Earth attract most ticket sales, while the theater showing the latest Star Wars movie sits nearly empty.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is there anything else Disney might do to get Chinese consumers to embrace Star Wars?
  2. What lessons does the history of Star Wars in China teach other marketers attempting to sell nostalgic or culturally linked offerings in global markets?

Source: Alan Yuhas, “Why ‘Star Wars’ Keeps Bombing in China,” The New York Times, January 14, 2020