‘Star Wars’ Heads for Record $33 Million First Day in China

“The Force Awakens” rolls out behind the Great Wall and is on course to set records for Disney and Saturday openings

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is heading for a $33 million first day in China based on early indicators, Disney said Saturday. That would be the highest Saturday opening day ever in that country.

The studio has a lot at stake. China is the No. 2 movie market in the world and a strong performance there will be crucial if “The Force Awakens,” which has rolled up $1.6 billion in less than four weeks, is to pass the $2.8 billion that 2009’s “Avatar” took in to become the all-time top-grossing movie at the worldwide box office. A big launch also would provide momentum for Shanghai Disneyland Park, which opens later this year.

But 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 there: 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).

Disney cranked up a major promo campaign behind “The Force Awakens” that included placing 500 Storn Troopers on the Great Wall in October, 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.

The giant screens of IMAX have proven very popular in China, to the extent that the company successfully took IMAX China public earlier this year. This weekend, there will be 940 IMAX theaters screening the J.J. Abrams‘-directed epic worldwide, 272 of which will be in China.

China has roughly 30,000 screens compared to the approximately 40,000 in the U.S., but was opening theaters at the rate of 12 a day last year, according to film officials there. It is expected to surpass Hollywood and the U.S. as the No. 1 movie market in the world in the next two or three years. In 2015, the U.S. box office brought in $11.1 billion compared to the $6.8 billion of the Chinese box office. But China’s grosses grew by an eye-popping 48 percent from 2014.