Here’s Why ‘Rogue One’ Failed to Take Off in China

Despite starring roles for Chinese A-listers Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen, the film sputtered to a $31 million opening weekend

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The Force does not seem to be with the “Star Wars” franchise in China.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” opened to just $30.6 million on the first weekend of its January 6 release, according to Chinese movie analytics firm Artisan Gateway.

The film topped Chinese-langauge movies “Some Like It Hot” and “Railroad Tigers” in what was a quiet weekend for the Chinese box office — but lagged well behind the $52.6 million debut for “The Force Awakens” last year.

Still, “The Force Awakens” managed to run up a solid but unspectacular $124 million in China, one of the few markets where the film was a relative disappointment. To compare, “Captain America: Civil War,” which grossed slightly more than half the global total of “Force Awakens,” reeled in $190 million in China alone.

But despite Disney and Lucafilm’s decision to cast two of China’s biggest stars in “Rogue One” —  Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen appear alongside Felicity Jones, Diego Luna and Ben Mendelsohn in the prequel — the film looks like it will far short its underperforming predecessor in China.

It seems that the “Star Wars” team still hasn’t cracked the code to break into the world’s second-largest movie market, and they might be running out of obvious ways to make that happen.

“Rogue One’s” January 6 release date wasn’t ideal, coming three weeks before the Chinese New Year holiday when the country’s censors clear its cinemas for local fare (and families spend a lot of money). But Jonathan Papish, an industry analyst at China Film Insider, told TheWrap the prequel’s struggles are more about the movie than the calendar.

“It’s still a case of ‘Star Wars’ being unable to break out with general Chinese audiences unfamiliar with the characters and overall story despite Disney’s best efforts to bring them in,” he said.

The original “Star Wars” films first came out in the 1970s and ’80s when China’s movie market was closed, and most of its audience’s first exposure to the iconic space opera franchise came through its less acclaimed prequels, released from 1999 to 2005.

Disney rolled out a massive marketing campaign ahead of “The Force Awakens” that included placing 500 Stormtroopers on the Great Wall and an official song from pop star Lu Han, but the magic of the “Star Wars” universe still seems to get lost in translation.

Papish, who grew up in the U.S., said he personally loved “Rogue One” and the treatment of the two Chinese characters, but his opinion didn’t really resonate in China.

“It’s polarizing Chinese audiences,” he said. “Those who grew up with the prequel trilogy or maybe caught the original trilogy somehow are giving the film some face, but the newer generation of moviegoers — those that really help a film break out at the box office — just don’t care about these stories.”

Even worse, merely adding local stars to a film that doesn’t otherwise appeal to Chinese audiences could backfire — and hurt the ability of the studio to lure those moviegoers down the line.

“The small number of Donnie Yen or Jiang Wen fans who turned out to see their faces were completely confused or bored with the rest of the story, which ultimately will turn them off from future ‘Star Wars’ installments,” Papish said.

Turns out, converting China’s young moviegoers into “Star Wars” fans might still be far, far away.