The Chinese movie market is well on its way to one day becoming the biggest in the world, and it's already led the pack for the first quarter of 2018. Chinese consumers are ready to spend money on movie tickets, and they're particularly drawn to big, effects-driven North American blockbusters. So, why can't the Disney Star Wars films seem to make any money there?
The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars film in the Disney era, did OK in China with an opening weekend of more than $50 million, but things have gone downhill from there. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Star Wars: The Last Jedi were worldwide hits, but had meager box office returns in China, to the point that the latter was infamously pulled from theaters there after just two weeks. Then came Solo: A Star Wars Story, which struggled everywhere but managed just $16 million in the Chinese market.
That's striking on its own, but particularly so when you compare it to other American blockbusters and how they perform there. Take Dwayne Johnson's latest release, Skyscraper, which performed poorly in its North American opening but has to date pulled in $85 million in China, more than $10 million beyond its domestic box office so far. Then there are the Marvel films, which do consistently well in China. As one example, Thor: Ragnarok earned $112 million of its eventual $853 million worldwide take in the country.
So what's the problem? Why is Star Wars just not landing with Chinese audiences? There are a lot of theories, but perhaps one of the best people to analyze this issue is someone who's both a Star Wars star and a living legend in Chinese cinema: Rogue One's Donnie Yen. Yen, who played the blind warrior Chirrut Imwe in the Star Wars spinoff, was promoting his new film Big Brother during an interview with JoBlo when the subject of Star Wars' Chinese struggles came up. Here's how Yen put it:
"Star Wars – Chinese audiences didn’t grow up with Star Wars culture so unfortunately it didn’t work. Marvel is a lot easier to understand. Star Wars, there’s a whole universe out there," he said. "Marvel, from the costumes, to the music, to the idols, to the stars, it's much easier to close the gap between the film itself and the audience."
Star Wars was famously built on certain universal principles of storytelling that fascinated George Lucas during his study of mythology, and you can still see some of those archetypes and tropes at play in the stories, but Yen has a point about the increasing complexity of the saga and its worlds. Sure, blasters look like guns and starship often function the same way planes or boats would, but so much of Star Wars is built from the ground up, with its own rules and quirks, that it's honestly easy to see why someone who's never been invested in it at all wouldn't care to pick all of that up. By contract, films like Skyscraper and The Avengers are relatively simple, and they take place in our world. You don't need a Ph.D in Marvel history to understand Captain America and his friends saving New York City from aliens.
Yen also raised another interesting point, something that he's seen evolve firsthand as the Chinese movie market has grown: Chinese filmmakers, flush with new resources and audiences, are eager to learn how Western cinema became the dominant force in the world. Western filmmakers are less eager to learn about Chinese cinema.
"And those resources, with our understanding, from watching and studying American films, adding on the way we’ve been making films... speaking for myself having been in a couple of American films — well — I mean, when you’re talking about American films you’re essentially talking about Western filmmaking. How to make a film and what is good about a film. The structure, the finance, the distribution, the marketing.That’s the gold standard, that’s the bible and I’m still learning," he said. "Chinese filmmakers are still learning, but at the same time we have an edge. We’ve been watching and studying these films. But – vice versa – I don’t think enough western filmmakers have spent the time to really analyse the Asian market – that’s why you’ll notice a lot of American films don’t work over here…"
That's a particularly interesting point from Yen that's going to mean a lot to various filmmakers and studios going forward. We've already seen many North American filmmakers attempting to incorporate Asian characters and locations (Skyscraper, for example, is set in Hong Kong) into their films as a draw for the Chinese market, but how much further will that go? There's no doubt we'll see a greater intermingling of the two markets as producers try to capitalize more and more on the international box office, and Yen — with his hands in films on both sides of the Pacific — could be a big part of that.