SHANGHAI/BEIJING – Jedi mind tricks don’t work on China.
Though “Star Wars” fans from around the world waited in line for days to catch “The Rise of Skywalker,” the sci-fi series has struggled to woo filmgoers in the increasingly important Chinese market.
Special previews of the long-awaited film drew just a handful of fans in Beijing this past week.
Chen Tao is a rare superfan in a country where Friday’s opening day pre-sales were just 12 million yuan ($1.7 million) — a fraction of the 218 million yuan taken in the recent release of a Chinese crime drama.
The 35-year-old Shanghai resident only became curious about the space saga by accident after stumbling across a pre-installed “Star Wars” video game on his first computer.
Chen now runs one of China’s biggest online “Star Wars” fan groups, debating lightsaber physics on the online message board Zhihu and managing a Twitter-like Weibo account with 30,000 followers.
He loves the “Star Wars” world for its vast scale and rich detail that fans can piece together through movies, books and games.
“Its world is like a jigsaw puzzle … which feels very magical to me and inspires a desire to explore this universe,” he said.
But Chen and his fellow fans are rare in China, where cinemagoers flock instead to see Marvel superheroes and domestic films.
“The Last Jedi” ranked No. 47 at the box office in China in 2018, far behind Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” at No. 6, according to Box Office Mojo.
Since buying Lucasfilm in 2012, Disney has stepped up efforts to gain “Star Wars” fans in the world’s fastest-growing movie market.
In October, Disney and the Tencent-owned e-book company China Literature announced they would publish the first “Star Wars” novel written specifically for Chinese audiences.
“We will introduce interpersonal relations and other concepts from Chinese custom into Star Wars,” a China Literature representative said.
The novel will have to overcome significant obstacles. A Beijing bar hosted a screening Tuesday of previous “Star Wars” films ahead of Friday’s China release — but the special room was mostly empty.
The indifference could be explained by the fact that Chinese audiences were introduced to the series in 1999 with the prequel “Episode 1: The Phantom Menace,” a disappointment to fans and critics.
“When ‘Star Wars’ was released worldwide in 1977 it was a real film revolution,” said Steffi Noel, an analyst from Shanghai-based market research firm Daxue Consulting. “Each new episode of ‘Star Wars’ is linked to a craze, a nostalgia,” Noel said.
But most Chinese viewers never formed this nostalgic bond with the movies.
In 1977, as foreign audiences were introduced to George Lucas’ Skywalker saga, China had just emerged from the chaotic Cultural Revolution and had little access to Western popular culture.
The three original films were only finally shown at a Shanghai film festival in 2015.
By the time Chinese audiences were introduced to the franchise, “the technology seemed old,” said Fan Yunxin, from a Beijing-based science fiction reading group.
“Space opera isn’t really something Chinese people related to,” Fan said, adding that while she likes the films, she didn’t know of any hard-core fans.
Alex Hu, a 24-year-old science fiction fan, said he was unimpressed with the visual effects.
“I would say a lot of fight scenes in Star Wars are similar,” he said.
Chen said Chinese sci-fi fans tend to prefer “hard” science fiction that focuses on scientific theory and have high demands for a story’s logical consistency, but “Star Wars” was more like a “Roman Empire tale that had been moved into space.”
When he first watched one of the films, he was amazed by how casually alien and human characters co-existed in the “Star Wars” universe, something he had never encountered before in a science fiction film.
Shanghai-based analyst Noel said Disney would need to re-brand “Star Wars” to sell the franchise in China.
“What they need to sell them now, is a new story,” she said. “It’s not enough to include Chinese-style drawings or Chinese architectures.”