How Star Wars Can Come Back and Win in China

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Star Wars is officially the “New Coke” of China. Chinese consumers gave it a try. Actually, multiple tries. But they just don’t like it.

This is the big take-away of the Last Jedi in China. First, Chinese consumers went to the Force Awakens, which made $52M its opening weekend. Then fewer went to the Rogue One, which made $30M opening weekend. Then even fewer went to the Last Jedi, where opening weekend was $28.7M. And then the Last Jedi dropped off by +90% and the movie exited China entirely in about 2 weeks. You don’t get much clearer feedback than that.

However, this isn’t all bad news.

Failure is actually pretty common in China. Consumers are fickle and constantly changing – and the competition is ferocious. Failure is just part of business in China. But it’s also never final. Because the market is big and dynamic – and it always gives you another chance.

I have an ongoing series of articles titled “What To Do When You Fail in China”. And I look at companies like Carlsberg and Danone, Morgan Stanley and Expedia, and Ford and Fiat – all of which initially failed in China. But many of which came back and had great success.

So the question now is really: How can Star Wars come back and win in China?

As this is mostly a content question, I reached out to some entertainment experts for their thoughts. I sent questions to:

  • Alex Zhang, an independent producer who was the fifth employee at Alibaba Pictures.
  • Justinian Huang, Head of Development at Oriental Dreamworks (now Pearl Studio).
  • Chris Colman, Outreach at Oriental Dreamworks (now Pearl Studio).

***

Jeff: So why did the Last Jedi fail in China?

Alex:

Star Wars has never been a cultural phenomenon in China. And the timing couldn’t have been worse for a large-world, sci-fi film in the post-Valerian, post-Star Trek environment here in China. There is little to no patience and interest in getting people out of their houses on a weekend to familiarize themselves with hundreds of new characters and unfamiliar cultures on the big screen. After the success of films like YOUTH, COCO, and EX-FILES, Chinese audiences have entered a pro-drama phase where human stories are more favored than out-of-this-world sagas.

This is just the mercurial nature of China’s market, in that it is very genre-climate driven. You get cycles of genres that are favored within a short period of time. But then again, these cycles are largely dictated by the quality of product in the market.

This problem is exacerbated by how Star Wars has chosen to market themselves in China, positioning it as a multi-media phenomenon that everyone should already know about. There’s merchandise, there’s TV ads, and there’s huge web banners. This has grossly underestimated how Star Wars-literate the average Chinese viewer is. Most people still don’t recognize Darth Vader, so how could they recognize the older Luke Skywalker?

There has also been little to no effort in localizing and personalizing the marketing efforts for China. Chinese audiences still love Avril Lavigne and that’s largely due to her Chinese language cover of Boyfriend. Chinese people in fact believe Avril is “their” artist. She’s one of us.

Whereas for Star Wars, the large muscular, brick and mortar advertising applied across the globe has furthered its image in China as an outside brand, much like Lord of the Rings. Keep in mind for China, you don’t have to even familiarize people with the story of Star Wars and its characters to successfully market Star Wars. It can be as simple as making Daisy Ridley a likable person. Aamir Khan barely needs to market his movies in China because all he needs to do is market himself.

Justinian and Chris:

There seem to be a few reasons:

The popularity of the new Star Wars films relies on nostalgia – and for audiences to know something about the originals with lots of references. But the original three films weren’t released in China when they were made in the late 70s. They only appeared on limited release in the 90s. Since it’s the 8th film in the series, apparently many Chinese people felt that they had too much catching up to do.

Chinese Star Wars fans also didn’t like the plot. They found it simplistic and stupid. A popular review said “the whole film really insults the IQ of its audience”. A lesser reason seems to be the lack of handsome stars or characters. Last Jedi was also released at the same time as The Ex-File 3: The Return of the Exes, a popular Chinese rom-com.

Finally, why should the Last Jedi do so well? If you strip away the history and hype, and just take it as a single film in isolation – which is essentially what it is to Chinese audiences – it’s pretty unremarkable.

Jeff: Is this situation different than the low sales for Rogue One and the Force Awakens?

Alex:

Oddly enough, the answer is there is no difference. China is not a market where you can hope for “built in audiences”. Star Wars should treat itself like a new original movie with each installment being an original stand-alone movie.

If you look at the Ex-Files series, neither the first movie nor its sequel grossed over 200 million RMB, but the third movie is just 100 million shy of 2 billion RMB after 30 days of release.

An example of this for foreign films would be Fast and Furious, which never grossed over 300 million RMB until Furious 7. Another good example would be Resident Evil which consistently grossed under 300 million rmb until FINAL CHAPTER, which blew through the roof at 1.1 billion rmb.

I wouldn’t say Rogue One and the Force Awakens have negatively impacted the interest in this current Star Wars movie. Take Jumanji with literally no pre-awareness built in. It was marketed as a stand-alone new movie, and boom it trends to the same numbers as Star Wars upon release. And in fact, Jumanji trended a few points higher than Star Wars, at 85,995 points on the Baidu index, whereas Star Wars only reached 81,890 points at its peak. Now compare this to “Ex-Files” which reached a staggering 701,592 points at its peak.

Another interesting fact to think about is Star Wars opening weekend, whereas Jumanji peaked shortly after, and Ex Files 3 trended to its peak one full week after its opening weekend. The simple deduction from this is that people simply didn’t like the Last Jedi that much, as with Rogue One and Force Awakens.

Justinian and Chris:

The first two did OK. The Force Awakens had a big buzz around it after such a long wait and was marketed heavily globally. Rogue One featured Chinese stars Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen, which went down well with viewers in China. The Last Jedi flopped more because of all the reasons mentioned.

Jeff: What should LucasFilm do now? Anything different in distribution and marketing?

Alex:

Even the best distributor would not have been able to sell the Last Jedi to a breakout performance. You need a new creative team and they need to be empowered to take risks and make inspired creative decisions.

Justinian and Chris:

Make films that are more relatable and relevant to the Chinese audience. See Coco, which did really well in China. Not pandering to a Chinese audience, but universal storytelling / themes / emotions, no prior knowledge needed, likeable, moving etc.

Jeff: How about a deal or joint venture for more China-focused Star Wars content?

Alex:

This could be very interesting as the world of the Jedi is often likened to the “Wuxia” world of Jin Yong. But I don’t believe localizing more or less in China would affect the Star Wars brand as a whole. Nor do I think they need to do this in order for the next movie to be successful in China. It’s more important for them to find a through-line for the next movie that doesn’t tire the audience with exposition, and goes to movie and surprises audiences.

Jeff: How about creating a Chinese-focused version of Star Wars? Something completely new?

Alex:

I think it would be very risky to do that. But you could start with a fully Chinese spinoff. Possible, but to be honest, there’s simply better and more interesting Chinese source material in literature and games.

To really make that competitive as a stand-alone Chinese movie requires not only Disney’s full backing but also incredible flexibility and creativity. Not easy, and I don’t expect Disney to do that.

***

That was the feedback I got from Alex, Chris and Justinian. I thought it was pretty helpful (I’m a business guy, not a creative type).

A couple of final points of unsolicited advice for LucasFilm on how to come back and win in China:

  1. Relax and don’t read too much into it. Everyone fails in China at some point. But many businesses and movies have then gone on to great success. So don’t take this as too definitive about the China market or about Star Wars in China.
  2. You probably needed a big failure. A lot of the Star Wars movies have gotten by because of the legacy and the loyal fanbase. But the movies often haven’t been awesome. Well those advantages are now completely gone in China. To win in China, you will need win on the movie quality full stop.
  3. Create stand-alone movies without a legacy. This does not have to be the tentpole trilogy blockbusters. It could work with smaller spin-off movies.
  4. Get closer to the China market. The days of making movies in the West and lobbing them across the Pacific (with some marketing and distribution support) are ending. You need to get closer to the ebbs and flows of Chinese entertainment and culture. Consider Chinese-focused content with global appeal. Consider a China-based creative team.
  5. Don’t give up. China is going to dwarf the USA in movie revenue soon. Just like has already happened in online gaming, e-commerce, auto sales, gaming (i.e., Macau) and other sectors. You will need to win in China to win globally.

Thanks for reading, -jeff

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I write and speak about the fight for Chinese consumers and digital China.

photo by Chris Griffith, Creative Commons license with link here.

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