Bob Iger is Playing the LONG Game With Star Wars in China & Its All About Merchandise

Star Wars’ Pre-Chinese New Year Release Dates Has Adversely Affects its China Box-Office Take – But, Will it Affect its Merchandising Growth Long-Term?

By Ryan Carroll, Editor-at-Large

July, 2019.


For the past couple of years, Star Wars has been the Christmas event to attend. Though this is one of the best times to release a movie like this in the North American box-office, it forces its release date in China to early January. A month not known for mega box-office hits, in terms of Hollywood movies.

Today I was catching up on Forbes’ Chinese box-office contributor, and all around one of the best experts in the U.S. discussing the China film industry, Rob Cain. Reading his articles for the past two weeks, many which have derided The Last Jedi, and as I read them I noticed one thing.

This was the first time I felt a sense of bias in his writings in discussing a Hollywood release in China. As he is obviously one of the few who vehemently disliked The Last Jedi, and I could see this in a few articles in particular.

See sources below.

The first one that caught my eye and made me shake my head in disagreement, was a very throw away article based around Douban comments on why Chinese audiences did not like , The Last Jedi.

An outline of four reasons why Star Wars was a “catastrophic” flop; Star Wars was never a cultural phenomenon in China, and The Force Awakens and Rogue One were nails in its coffin.

The first part of this statement is correct but the second half is something I have talked about before, and disagree with. This is not the metaphorical nail in the coffin, but an incredible disappointment for a franchise that Disney hopes to grow in the Middle Kingdom.

One thing I did notice at the beginning of said article is, that Wanda partnered with Disney in creating “Star Wars Art Zones” in 110 cinemas across China. An aspect of Star Wars’ growth that I believe is being overlooked.

The “Star Wars Art Zones” are obviously not for promoting the film itself to purchase tickets for a Wanda Cinema Line screen, but a partnership to drive customers to the Wanda-owned The leader in movie merchandising in China, and the company that brought in more than $10MMUSD in merchandising products for Warcraft. Before its opening weekend.

This, along with Shanghai Disney Resort, is the key to understanding why Disney will not give up on promoting each Star Wars movie. As, like I said before, Star Wars is not a current known brand in China, but two generations from now; it just might be.

So. Being the proverbial “nail in the coffin”? I doubt it to be. As there is no outcome to which the following Star Wars films; Solo and Episode IX, are not released in China.

2017 saw the highest number of international releases in China with over 70+, in a country that has a strict quota of 34 theatrical releases from abroad. This is possible due to the Flat Fee distribution system, an ever growing aspect of how non-major studios are able to get their films released theatrically in China.

Flat Fee distribution used to be the bane of box-office participation release, as it offered little in compensation for those involved, but it was one that allowed producers bragging rights of their films being released in China. Just ask Jason Statham, who has seen nearly every one of his films released in China, through flat fee distribution, and now is starring in the “Chinese” (blockbuster?) film Meg.

I doubt that we will ever see China Film Corp. stop releasing the films that Disney wishes them to release, as seen with every Pixar movie being released in the last ten years. As one day Star Wars just might have its own Coco – when that will be, is up to the stars.

But, if they are dropped from the lucrative quota releases. Disney has other partners in China, who would line up to provide a “back-end” to their flat fee release. Something that is becoming more common, especially among companies who could purchase the flat fee distribution and the streaming rights in China.

If this happens to Star Wars, then we most likely would see a company, that has previously team up again with Disney for Star Wars, to do so again. As giving a deal to Disney for a franchise that is still looking for its audience in China, is better than having no deal at all with Disney.

Tencent would be a prime choice for a Star Wars back-end flat fee distributor deal, due to their previous streaming deal with Disney for Star Wars. A deal that could upend Wanda’s Mtime merchandising rights, by having a one-stop home for Star Wars in China; theatrical distribution by Tencent Pictures, streaming via Tencent Video, and all merchandising / licensing / ancillary products through the array of other Tencent portals.

I would not be surprised to see to see Tencent Literature begin doing more licensing deals with comic book companies in China, such as motion comics for Stars Wars, in order to grow their own audience traction in the burgeoning 2D Culture & Pan Entertainment sectors.

But. I digress.

Back to Rob Cains article! – Two of the other reasons: it’s lightsaber fight scenes are boring, and its aesthetics and color schemes are drab, for Chinese audiences not liking Jedi. Sound more like excuses for Chinese audiences who did not wish to spend their money on the movie in the first place, and likely to have not even seen it.

The last and forth point is that, it’s not “sci-fi” enough for Chinese. A point that has bothered me for the last several months, with several articles popping up discussing Chinese “love of fantasy”!

But, as I have written before, Let’s Stop Confusing China’s Love of Fantasy Films with Hollywood Sci-fi Releases like The Last Jedi.

Getting back to my main thesis: that the North American release dates of the last three Star Wars movies, just before Christmas; negatively affects its hope to dominate, ever, at the Chinese box-office. As all previous films have been released in the first weeks of January in China.

The month that leads up to the Chun jie, aka Chinese New Year, aka Chinese Lunar New Year. A month not know to produce groundbreaking results for Hollywood films at the China box-office, but a month known to produce successes for local films at the China box-office.

The Last Jedi‘s very disappointing opening weekend in China, though not really a shocker, is not due to its rejection by Chinese audiences. As pointed out in any four point lists. But, because there are several local films, one in particular, that are going gangbusters at their local cinemas.

The one in particular is Ex-Files 3 a romantic comedy sequel to a well like franchise, that made $87MMUSD compared to The Last Jedi‘s $28.7MM three day opening weekend.

It’s box-office dominance, along with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle being released, starring China loved Dwayne Johnson. Who only Vin Diesel or Jason Statham are arguably rivals to – making up the Bald Trifecta of Hollywood action stars. Forced The Last Jedi to lose 92% of its showtimes in China. Forcing a Friday-to-Friday 94% record setting drop.

Both, Rob Cain & Scott Mendelson at Forbes, hinted at China dropping the next installments of the Star Wars franchise in favor of more lucrative Hollywood hits, is highly unlikely as I described above.

When you take in Jumanji‘s opening Friday take of $12MM, it will not have a monumentally larger three day open than Jedi‘s near $30MM. As Scott Mendelson has predicted an over-under $36MM opening weekend. Depending on if it reacts favorably with families, for Sunday drop off or not.

How leggy Jumanji will be in China is still up for question, as with Jedi the month leading up to the Chun jie provides stiff competition from the local box-office fair.

Jedi‘s opening weekend is on par with Rogue One which went on to make $69.5MM, so there is obviously a variable of factors for Jedi‘s performance compared to A Star Wars Story. Dwayne Johnson’s presence, Ex-Files 3 continued dominance, which has led to its historic drop and decrees of available screenings in China.

Meaning that, with three Star War films released in China so-far, with no phenomenal success, could only mean one thing; January is a terrible month to release a movie that causes so much hubbub among its fans and critics. Whether it is the biggest hit ever in Chinaland, or not.

It is going to take years for the Star Wars franchise to catch on in China, but with merchandising, licensing, and Shanghai Disney, there will be money to make. We should not prepare for the Qingming Festival this year or next, and go sweep the tomb where the proverbial nailed down coffin rest, that is Star Wars.

Forbes Sources: Rob Cain, Friday-to-Friday DropScott Mendelson, Stop Calling Last Jedi a Box-Office BombRob Cain, 4 Reasons Jedi Bombed in ChinaScott Mendelson, Jumanji Scores in China After Jedi Flops.

Part of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn Publishing in Jan. of 2018.

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About the Author
Born and raised in the Missouri-Ozarks Ryan studied Film Production, and East Asian Culture, at the University of Kansas where he was a UGRA recipient that led him on a seven-year long, Journey From the West, to China. Where he worked with Warner Brothers, the China Film Group Corp. and the National Bureau of Statistics of China. Before returning to the States, where he specializes in Chinese Anime & Comics, China’s Box-Office, and Chinese entertainment-tech industries. He has a dog in China, Abigail, and a dog in the Arkansas-Ozarks, King Blue, who help ease his anxiety of suffering from the “Two-Dimensional Complex” that is trying to understand the Culture Industry landscapes of the Middle Kingdom.