Why was The Last Jedi a huge box office flop in China?

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was last year’s phenomenally successful, ‘everybody and their dog saw it’ blockbuster. It caused carnage at the box office and rained money into the hands of producers at Disney. According to Box Office Mojo, the film has so far made more than US$1.2 billion worldwide.

Except almost none of that was from China. In the huge and potentially lucrative Chinese market, which is becoming more and more a factor in decisions from Hollywood (given China has more screens than America) the film has fizzled.

The Last Jedi opened the week before last in China with an underwhelming US$28.7 million, compared to US$40 million for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. Then in its second week, The Last Jedi‘s box office gross dropped a whopping 92 percent, which Hollywood Reporter described as “a shocking flameout for 2017’s biggest global film.”

The Force Awakens opened better, with a respectable US$53 million. But then the next weekend there was another steep drop, of 72%, to around US$14 million. The Force Awakens ended up grossing less than something called Boonie Bears 3 (whatever that is).

So what gives? To put it simply, Star Wars has never been popular in China. But why?

Here’s an explanation published by Screenrant:

“Essentially, Star Wars is on the backfoot because of the rule changes that have allowed China to become such a cinematic presence – due to previous restrictions, the originals and prequels never played properly in the country, so the generations of fans who grew up in the movies that have made Disney’s reboot films so successful elsewhere simply don’t exist. And that’s saying nothing of the franchise’s incredibly western viewpoint; the likes of Transformers and Marvel may feature mainly American casts, but their visual stylings and story approach can be better translated internationally.”

And one from Forbes:

“The first Star Wars film (Episode 4: The New Hope) was released in 1977, one year after the death of Chairman Mao and the end of the Cultural Revolution. No foreign entertainment was imported into China at that time. 1977 was therefore not a banner year for movies in China to say the least. The first Star Wars film to be released in China was Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and this was in 1999. China’s box office gained popularity as late as 2009, and, in fact, until The Force Awakens there have been no Star Wars releases since 2009. Many Star Wars franchise fans worldwide were children in the 1970s and 1980s, but in China today’s primary movie-going audience was born between the years of 1985-1999. Therefore, the powerful nostalgia factor that the most recent Star Wars movie has going for it in North America is lost on most Asian movie viewers.”

And one from Quora:

“Disney spent a fortune marketing the Force Awakens film, including 500 storm troopers on the Great Wall, Lu Han became a Chinese Ambassador for the film and even a special Chinese themed song from a popular boy band. They also changed some of the key visuals from the film, reducing the size of Finn on some of the posters to make it more ‘local’.

This ultimately ended in disappointment though, and was followed up by an unsuccessful Rogue One in the box office. Key reasons behind this are: < A lack of understanding for the original series, characters such as Hans Solo are unknown by a lot of the younger generation and do not resonate as strongly (and) Sci-Fi films also don’t have a strong history in China. Traditional tastes are focused on Chinese history, and only a smaller demographic have become accustomed to this genre.”

So perhaps the best explanation is simple. Part of the joy of watching the new Star Wars was seeing old characters return. But in China there wasn’t much joy to be had in that, because not many people knew these characters to begin with.