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Why Star Wars keeps bombing in China

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The Rise of Skywalker (above) grossed nearly US$1 billion worldwide but barely crossed US$20 million in China. Star Wars movies have "somewhat abstruse, complicated jargon 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 to comprehend, digest and appreciate."

New York

THE assault was swift and sustained: 500 Stormtroopers stood on the Great Wall. X-Wings swooped into Shanghai and Beijing. Lightsabers crackled in theatres 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 US$1 billion worldwide and barely breaking US$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 US$177 million in its first few days last month.

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In China, those movies opened to US$52 million, US$28 million and US$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.

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 jargon 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 theatres 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.

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, 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 Rosen said is more popular in China than the "science fiction soap opera" of Star Wars.

And over the past 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, 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." NYTIMES

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