‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Still Hasn’t Locked China Release

IMAX executives are “hopeful” that Disney’s sci-fi epic will open there in January but they still await final approval for world’s No. 2 market

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has still not received final approval for a box-office run in China, but IMAX executives said Wednesday that they were hopeful for a January date.

“We’re hopeful and optimistic, but until the date is finalized it’s only a ‘guestimate,'” IMAX Entertainment President Greg Foster said during a Q&A session after the company reported strong third quarter results.

Disney and Lucasfilm will roll out “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in North America and nearly every other major global market on Dec. 18.

However, Chinese film officials maintain an annual 34-film quota on foreign film releases to protect their domestic movie business, and all of the slots for 2015 have been filled, so the Millennium Falcon gang had to push to 2016.

Chinese officials have in the past seemed arbitrary in terms of which U.S. films were allowed to play — and when. It’s hard to imagine they’d deny their film fans the opportunity to see the long-awaited addition to the iconic sci-fi series, and nearly all industry analysts and insiders believe the film will play there. That said, Disney has already had to push it into next year.

Major returns from China are especially critical to IMAX because the giant screen company is very heavily invested in that country. IMAX China recently launched a successful IPO, and the company will soon have more screens in China than in the U.S., so it’s likely hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake with the “Star Wars” run.

Analysts have projected that ‘The Force Awakens” could take in more than $2 billion globally, which is rare box office air that only “Avatar” and “Titanic” have breathed in the past.

IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond said he believed that within two years, China would surpass North America as the world’s largest market for movies, and that his company was well positioned to take advantage of it. A flurry of recent deals with Chinese companies have to some extent insulated IMAX from problems should the Beijing government reverse its current shift toward a looser policy on film imports.

A strong showing by the Chinese hit “Monster Hunt” helped IMAX weather the storm of China’s stock market crisis earlier this year. The investments in local film projects also provides a hedge against the increasingly productive Chinese film industry, which has launched more than its share of homegrown blockbusters this year. IMAX ticket sales in the People’s Republic increased in the third quarter from $48.4 million in the year-ago period to $70.4 million.

“Because the quality of their films is getting better, with bigger budgets, better effects, we really don’t care whether they are Chinese films or U.S.films, as long as we can give Chinese moviegoers what they want on our screens for 52 weeks a year,” Foster said.