Can ‘Star Wars’ Soar in China Without The Force of Familiarity?

Disney works to sell “The Force Awakens” to the Chinese, who are key to foreign strategy but aren’t huge fans of the franchise

Disney will launch a massive foreign rollout on Wednesday of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” that the studio believes gives it a shot at both the highest-grossing weekend in global box office history and ultimately, the largest overseas haul ever.

If it does manage to top the record $525 million worldwide weekend that the big lizards of “Jurassic World” opened to in June, it will be an extraordinary achievement because “The Force Awakens” won’t debut in China until January 9.

The world’s second-largest movie market with roughly 30,000 screens — the U.S. has roughly 40,000 — delivered nearly $100 million of the record $315 million international haul that “Jurassic World” managed in its opening weekend abroad this summer. That’s a significant disadvantage for “Star Wars” to overcome, and while no one’s ruling it out, it makes it that record long shot.

One of the big reasons 2009’s “Avatar” topped 1997’s “Titanic” in earning and became the No. 1 all-time top-grossing movie globally was China. James Cameron‘s iceberg disaster epic earned $49 million there, but 12 years later his Navi tale “Avatar” took in $204 million. Records aside, China will have a lot to do with the bottom line of “The Force Awakens.”

Success there is no given, because the Chinese are not huge “Star Wars” fans. They have seen only the last three releases in the series, prequels that didn’t resonate at the box office: 1999’s “The Phantom Menace ($5 million), 2002’s “Attack of the Clones” ($7.2 million) and 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith” ($11.7 million).

To address that, Disney has cranked up a major promo campaign behind “The Force Awakens” that included placing 500 Stormtroopers on the Great Wall in October (photo top), cutting a deal with Chinese online titan Tencent to make all the “Star Wars” films available for streaming and enlisting young pop star Lu Han — the “Chinese Justin Bieber” — as a spokesman.

In addressing China and overseas, as he has with the North American rollout, Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis has stressed “the multiple” — the grosses taken in after the opening weekend.

“I think the day and date rollout in most of the world will create the ‘event’ we’ve been seeking,” he told TheWrap. “What we’d like to see is positive fan reaction from the initial week take the momentum behind the film from a simmer to a boil just as we hit China, and then let the movie speak for itself.”

One of the best things Disney has going for it with “The Force Awakens” will be IMAX, whose giant screens have proven very popular in China, to the extent that it successfully took IMAX China public earlier this year. This weekend, there will be 668 IMAX theaters screening the J.J. Abrams‘-directed epic worldwide, 276 of which will overseas — 18 percent more than “Jurassic World” had. That number will surge to a record 940 when the 272 IMAX screens in China are added in January.

Overseas fans will actually see “The Force Awakens” before it debuts in the U.S. on Friday. It opens Wednesday in key market Italy. Also: Philippines, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Thailand, Netherlands, Belgium, Norway and Finland.

On Thursday it opens in more European countries, including the U.K. and Germany which should be very strong, as well as Korea, Mexico, Australia, Russia, Brazil, Taiwan, Austria and New Zealand.

On Friday, it debuts in Japan, Spain Venezuela. It’s unusual to roll out so widely at once abroad, in virtually every major market except China.

“We think we can take advantage of the holiday period in just about every territory and let the film’s opening create its own momentum,” said Hollis.