‘Star Wars’ Awakens to the Force of China’s Entertainment Empire

Country set to overtake U.S. as world No.1 in entertainment

Photographer: Imaginechina via AP Images

It’s a tale of a plucky band of rebels, hiding out in remote areas, who defeat the vastly superior forces of the empire and build a thriving republic.

But enough about China, how is the new Star Wars film doing?

Chinese fans will line up Saturday for the opening of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the seventh installment of the space epic created by George Lucas. It’s a title that could reflect the dramatic rise of China’s own entertainment industry. 

Chinese fans look at or take pictures of the "Star Wars" robot R2-D2 during a premiere event of movie "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in Shanghai, China, on Dec. 27, 2015. 
Chinese fans look at or take pictures of the "Star Wars" robot R2-D2 during a premiere event of movie "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in Shanghai, China, on Dec. 27, 2015. 
Photographer: Zhu Jiahao/Imaginechina via AP Images

The Walt Disney Co. film, directed by J.J. Abrams, is projected to bring in a total of 1.5 billion yuan ($229 million) in China, according to David Hao, a research analyst at Credit Suisse Group AG in Hong Kong. China’s movie market will become even more vital to Hollywood as the government tilts the economy toward consumers and services, adding fuel to a ballooning industry of studios, cinemas and distribution.

The 40 percent annual growth of China’s entertainment market is reshaping the business worldwide, according to Jeffrey Towson, professor of investment at Guanghua School of Management at Peking University and co-author of “The One Hour China Consumer Book: Five Short Stories That Explain the Brutal Fight for One Billion Consumers.” He projects China’s market will be the world’s largest in a year or so, surpassing the U.S.

“Could George Lucas have imagined in 1977 that Chinese consumers were one day going to be his biggest audience?” Towson said. “The explosion of Chinese entertainment, driven by the arrival of middle class Chinese consumers, is going to be one of the biggest stories of 2016.”

The crowds of smartphone-tapping customers flocking to China’s cinemas this weekend are a far cry from the almost non-existent consumer culture in the country back in 1977, when the original film in the franchise opened in the U.S. 

Deng Xiaoping takes a walk in January 1992 surrounded by his daughters and grandson during his visit to Shenzhen, one of five favoured Special Economic Zones in China.
Deng Xiaoping takes a walk in January 1992 surrounded by his daughters and grandson during his visit to Shenzhen, one of five favoured Special Economic Zones in China.
Photographer: AFP/Getty Images

As young Luke Skywalker first jumped into his landspeeder a long time ago, in a country far away Deng Xiaoping was still consolidating his power base, prior to launching the biggest market opening in history.

China’s gross domestic product per capita then was less than $200, below that of Afghanistan. Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic, had died just eight months earlier and cinemas ran such Cultural Revolution-themed classics as “Thank You, Comrades.”

Over the next decade and a half, while moviegoers outside the country watched the Empire strike back and the Jedi return, Deng built free-trade zones, stock markets and infrastructure that unleashed a flood of investment. His proving ground was Shenzhen, a former fishing village across the border from Hong Kong, where consumers queued up in 1990 for their first taste of a Big Mac at the opening of the mainland’s first McDonald’s Corp. restaurant.

When Deng walked into Shanghai’s state-owned No. 1 Department Store to go shopping in 1992, the shelves were full of consumer goods, instead of the bare-bones offerings available when his reforms began, according to Ezra Vogel’s biography, “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China.” The paramount leader bought some pens for his grandchildren before hopping on a train back to Beijing. 

A man dressed as Darth Vader from the movie "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" holds a light saber in a movie theatre May 19, 2005 in Chengdu of Sichuan Province, China.
A man dressed as Darth Vader from the movie "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" holds a light saber in a movie theatre May 19, 2005 in Chengdu of Sichuan Province, China.
Photographer: China Photos/Getty Images

By the time “The Phantom Menace” stalked global theaters in 1999 — the fourth Star Wars film to be released — China was making its own international blockbusters, with the debut the following year of the Chinese co-production “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

That expansion in local film production and cinemas has gathered pace, helping make Wang Jianlin the richest person in China, with an estimated fortune of almost $34 billion. The chairman and founder of Beijing-based conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group has interests in commercial property, department stores, tourism, hotels, and entertainment centers.

Dalian Wanda became the world’s largest cinema operator after buying Kansas City-based AMC Entertainment in 2012 for $2.6 billion. Now Wang is building Oriental Movie Metropolis, a Chinese version of Hollywood that would be the world’s biggest studio-plus-theme park, in the eastern port of Qingdao, famous for its beer.

“We’re very bullish on China,” said Bob Iger, chief executive officer of Disney, which plans to open its first mainland theme park in Shanghai this year. “The Chinese consumer is still spending. And the Chinese consumer represents, as far as we’re concerned, a great market for our company,” he said in a Dec. 21 Bloomberg Television interview.

Disney's Bob Iger on 'Star Wars,' ESPN, and China

Today’s millennial moviegoers and their parents in China are getting the chance to catch up with the legions of Star Wars fans elsewhere who grew up with The Force. China’s population has climbed 42 percent to 1.37 billion since the franchise’s debut in 1977, adding 418 million people — more than the current population of the U.S. About half the people in China were born after the first Star Wars movie came out.

Disney recently arranged the first theatrical screening in China of the original film, “Star Wars: A New Hope,” to coincide with the debut of the latest episode, whose title translates as: “Xing Qiu Da Zhan: Yuan Li Jue Xing.”

With more installments on the way from Disney to tap China’s entertainment appetite, the studio must be looking on the bright side. 

— With assistance from Annie Lee.

A Wanda Cinema in Wuhan, Hubei province.
A Wanda Cinema in Wuhan, Hubei province.
Photographer: Zhang Peng/LightRocket via Getty Images