China Is Hurting the Chances 'Star Wars' Will Surpass 'Avatar' Globally

One Place 'Star Wars' Won't Break Box-Office Record Is China

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Stormtroopers lined the Great Wall in a publicity stunt last fall
Stormtroopers lined the Great Wall in a publicity stunt last fall

The one place where "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" won't break records is the world's second-largest movie market -- China -- and without a big performance there, the Walt Disney film will struggle to overtake "Avatar" as the top- grossing picture of all time.

"The Force Awakens," set to open Saturday in China, could gross as much as 1.5 billion yuan ($230 million) through its full run in mainland theaters, according to Nomura Holdings. "Furious 7" holds the local record of $391.2 million set in April.

The "Star Wars" franchise, one of Hollywood's most valuable movie properties, isn't as well known in China. That presents a marketing challenge for Disney, which paid $4 billion in 2012 for the series creator and plans to make four more "Star Wars" pictures. China, where ticket sales grew 48% to $6.75 billion last year, is set to become the biggest movie market in the world as soon as 2017.

"I'm skeptical it'll hit with many new fans, given the film's nostalgic tone and the comparatively muted reaction elsewhere in much of Asia," said Jonathan Papish, an analyst at BoxOffice.com, which predicts $150 million to $200 million in China.

In Hong Kong last weekend, "The Force Awakens" lost its first-place hold over the box office to the local-language movie "Ip Man 3," according to Mr. Papish. South Korea and Vietnam were among the few countries where the movie didn't open as No. 1. "The Force Awakens" has broken more than 40 box-office records, according to Box Office Mojo, and is poised to add another this week when it passes "Avatar" as the biggest film in North America.

"For any big budget blockbuster film, China is increasingly critical," said Paul Sweeney, a Bloomberg Intelligence analyst. "The Force Awakens" needs to do well there to have a chance at breaking the global record of $2.79 billion, also held by "Avatar," he added.

A Disney spokesman declined to comment on the film's prospects in China. "The Force Awakens," released in most markets in December, has generated $1.54 billion in worldwide ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. The total is almost certain to top $2 billion, according to Cowen & Co.

'Long game'
Disney is "playing the long game and trying to create awareness for the sequels and spinoffs down the line," Mr. Papish said. This year's "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" will feature Chinese stars Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang, elements that could attract Chinese audiences, he said.

In October, an army of 500 Stormtroopers lined the Great Wall of China in a publicity stunt for "The Force Awakens," the seventh film in the series created by George Lucas. The original "Star Wars," which opened in 1977 in the U.S., had its first theatrical screening in China only this summer.

"It's a really interesting marketing challenge there," said Robert Cain, a partner at film producer and consultant Pacific Bridge Pictures. "Not many people have actually seen any of the movies" in theaters.

In contrast, Paramount Pictures' "Transformers" franchise had years of television exposure, Mr. Cain said. The latest installment in the series, "Age of Extinction," is the third biggest movie in China, according to Box Office Mojo.

To build awareness, Disney also enlisted Chinese social media and pop star Luhan as its official ambassador for the movie, "leading a campaign to introduce 'Star Wars' to new audiences," according to the official Star Wars blog.

Stock drop
Shares of Disney, the top performer among large U.S. media stocks last year with a 12% gain, have declined for five straight days amid broader market weakness and investor concerns about the long-term health of traditional TV networks like ESPN. The stock fell 1.4% to $99.50 before the markets opened Wednesday.

The last three "Star Wars" movies, released in China between 1999 and 2005, generated less than $20 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo.

Richard Huang, an analyst at Nomura, expects "Star Wars" to roughly match the $228 million in Chinese box-office sales that "Jurassic World" generated last year.

"My concern is that the last one was 10 years ago and if people are not familiar with the American pop culture, they may not be aware of the movie," Mr. Huang said in an interview.

-- Bloomberg News

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