It doesn't really matter how you look at it, Star Wars: Rogue One is officially a big success for Disney and Lucasfilm. Even though this is the first ever live-action, theatrically released Star Wars movie to take place outside of the main saga, it is still a Star Wars movie, so expectations were huge. Despite the great results at the box office so far, there is one place where Disney can't seem to make Star Wars work; China. Now we have a pretty good idea why that is.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has, as of this writing, grossed $916 million worldwide and is well on its way to $1 billion. However, outside of the U.S., China is the second most important market for movies these days and for some reason, Star Wars has had trouble there. Last week, Rogue One opened to just $31 million in China, which is definitely on the low side of things. Granted, there was a red alert issued by the government for toxic levels of air pollution, which was being called an apocalyptic smog. That could have had an effect on things. The Wrap recently spoke with Jonathan Papish, a China movie insider, who shed some light on why Star Wars is struggling in China, beyond the dangerous levels of smog.
"It's still a case of 'Star Wars' being unable to break out with general Chinese audiences unfamiliar with the characters and overall story despite Disney's best efforts to bring them in."
Part of the problem is that the original Star Wars movies weren't released in China, because the market wasn't open for movies made in the U.S. at the time. The prequel trilogy did get released in China, but those were, as most of us know, not nearly as beloved as the original trilogy to say the least. So, many people in the country aren't as familiar with the characters and universe that Star Wars inhabits. Despite Disney's massive marketing campaigns for both Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a movie that included two very recognizable Chinese actors in the form of Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen, they haven't been able to crack the market wide open.
"It's polarizing Chinese audiences. Those who grew up with the prequel trilogy or maybe caught the original trilogy somehow are giving the film some face, but the newer generation of moviegoers - those that really help a film break out at the box office - just don't care about these stories."
There are plenty of movies Chinese audiences do care about. For comparison's sake, movies like Terminator: Genisys ($58 million), San Andreas ($52 million) and Now You See Me 2 ($42 million) all opened better than Star Wars: Rogue One ($31 million) did. Disney has managed to have big success with other properties, so it certainly isn't a Disney issue. Captain America: Civil War opened to $93 million last year, so it must frustrate Disney and Lucasfilm that Star Wars can't hit those big numbers. Even with Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen, it couldn't give much of a boost. Here is how Jonathan Papish explained it.
"The small number of Donnie Yen or Jiang Wen fans who turned out to see their faces were completely confused or bored with the rest of the story, which ultimately will turn them off from future 'Star Wars' installments."
Still, even without China, the Disney era of Star Wars is undoubtedly a big success. Star Wars: The Force Awakens went on to gross more than $2 billion worldwide and is the third highest-grossing movie ever made behind only Titanic and Avatar. Just to lend some perspective, only $124 million of that came from China. As for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the movie is going to make more than $1 billion and that will be enough for Disney and Lucasfilm to call it a success. That said, if the House of Mouse can ever crack the code on China and Star Wars, they could pile onto these successes even more.