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‘Star Wars’ China Challenge: Can ‘Rogue One’ Take Off After ‘Force Awakens’ Disappointment?

Disney scrambles after middling Chinese box office for its last ”Star Wars“ film — but the calendar could be a bigger foe than Darth Vader

Disney is pulling out all the stops to make sure the next film in arguably its most important franchise is a massive hit in the world’s second-biggest market. But “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” might have a bumpy ride in China — despite proven home-grown headliners like Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen having prominent roles.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which made more than $2 billion worldwide, was a smash hit pretty much everywhere except the Middle Kingdom. That was despite a favorable release date and a massive marketing campaign that included placing Stormtroopers on the Great Wall and a custom song created by Chinese pop star Lu Han.

“Force Awakens” grossed a solid but unspectacular $124 million in China, well short of the records the film set in dozens of other territories. To compare, “Captain America: Civil War,” which had a little more than half the global box office gross of “Force Awakens,” reeled in $190 million in Chinalone.

Jonathan Papish, an industry analyst at China Film Insider, told TheWrap the younger-skewing Chinese audience didn’t understand the movie’s plot — perhaps because the original “Star Wars” films never made it to what was then a closed movie market. There were even reports of people snoozing in the theater.

Disney’s culturally conscious casting of Chinese movie stars Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen should help differentiate “Rogue One,” even if the country’s audience is sophisticated enough to see through blatantly obvious attempts to add Chinese elements to tentpole movies.

“I do think that the inclusion of Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen will attract more general audiences and casual moviegoers who might decide which movie to see at the theater as opposed to buying tickets beforehand,” Papish said. “Still, the Chinese audience is numb to Hollywood blockbusters throwing in random Chinese elements and increasingly feels pandered to.”

During an interview after his Nov. 30 handprint ceremony at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood, Yen told TheWrap that his fans will get plenty of him in the film, regardless of how they feel about the actual story.

And journalists and critics who have seen a 28-minute clip of the movie can attest to at least one scene highlighting Yen — a multiple-time martial arts champion — in his full ass-kicking glory.

As word of Yen and Jiang being more than bit players gets out, Papish said it could help sell the film to a skeptical public.

“The news that Donnie and Jiang have meatier roles than most Chinese performers in Hollywood films will hopefully hit social media and general audiences who didn’t see ‘The Force Awakens’ will turn up,” he said.

Bringing in the likes of Yen, who is a household name in China for his portrayal of legendary martial arts instructor Yip Man in the “Ip Man” trilogy, should help excite the country’s evidently lukewarm “Star Wars” fans.

The biggest challenge for “Rogue One,” which hits U.S. theaters on Dec. 16, could have been its release date in China, which remained a mystery until Tuesday, when it was confirmed to hit the country’s cinemas on Jan. 6, according to the official Star Wars Weibo account. While there’s virtually zero chance the film doesn‘t make it to China, the date itself matters a lot.

Chinese New Year, which comes early in 2017, is an unofficial but established blackout period for China’s cinemas, in which only local fare is permitted. The official holiday, which is determined by the lunar calendar, fell on February 8 this year, but it moves to January 28 in 2017. And that shift could have eclipsed “Rogue One’s” box office dreams — especially as the film’s lack of a prompt release date announcement raised speculation that it would be pushed too close to the holiday.

Papish said that would have left Disney with the “unenviable option” of releasing the movie in the middle of February, after Chinese New Year is over. That exposes the studio to more piracy and bad word-of-mouth, but it might be the best out of a group of sub-optimal choices — a situation possibly exacerbated by the tepid performance of “Force Awakens” in China, which even benefited from a Jan. 8 release date, giving the film more than a month before Chinese New Year.

“Disney would love to opt for regular day-and-date releases in December rather than adapting to the Chinese New Year schedule, but perhaps ‘The Force Awakens” so-so box office showing left them without leverage to negotiate,” Papish said