STARWARS FLARE UP
For historical reasons the world’s foremost sci-fi franchise has a gigantic blind spot. But a new venture could relaunch it into the hearts of Chinese filmgoers, says
When my American friends talk to me about Star Wars, it usually takes me a long time to explain to them why their favorite sci-fi franchise has not caught on in the Middle Kingdom theway ithasin the rest of the world.
The biggest piece of the puzzle lies in 1977, the year the first installment debuted. That was right after the end of the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). There were sporadic mentions of the runaway hit in the Chinese press as I remember, but I did not get to see the film until the early 1980swhenitwas screened for a limited audience as part of an American film festival. Therewasapalpable feeling of disappointment — or ennui at best — amongcollegestudentsandteachers.
The reason was simple: The 1980s was a time of reckoning and reflection. Most Chinese who went to see foreign fare at the cinema wanted serious drama that dealt with grave social issues. We were not ready for entertainment and we did not caremuchfor the then revolutionary special effects. In other words, we were the polar opposite of whatChinese filmgoers are today.
The Empire Strikes Back was aired on some city channels in 1988, but television sets had not yet reached every Chinese household and the most popular shows back then were Hong Kong kung fu series, which had mammoth fictional worlds of their own, such as adaptations of Louis Cha novels.
The 1990s changed the equation when video discs introduced a century of world cinema to a huge audience base. When Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace was released in China in 1999, it was exactly 22 years — approximately one generation — after a global whirlwind was whipped up by the original movie. Film attendance in China was at the peak around 1980, but StarWars was not available to make the all-important first impression, and even if it had, judging from public reaction to other Hollywood sci-fi movies that found their way to China then, it would probably have been met with a lukewarm reception. And when China emerged as a market juggernaut in the late Noughties, the new wave of moviegoers showed little interest in a franchise that should have wowed their parents — had their parents been living in another country, that is.
The mismatch between a cultural product’s timing and its audience’s mentality could not be more poignantifyoustudythepopularityofHollywood franchises such as Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Transformers, The Avengers, X-Men and other superhero series. They all arrived in China in the new century. Though Transformers can trace its roots to the television cartoonshown on the Chinese tube in the 1980s, nostalgia-oriented viewers make up a fraction of today’s growing audience, which has an average age of 21. Tosell StarWars to thisdemographic would be like selling them their grandfather’s Oldsmobile.
This is not to say that George Lucas’ creation does not have loyal Chinese fans. But you just won’t be able to find one who got hooked on it in 1977. A Chinese Star Wars online forum was launched in 2001. It has 50,000 registered users, of which 10,000 are active, which, according to a recent Southern Weekend article, corresponds to the actual size of the franchise’s Chinese fan base. Chen Tao, in charge of the forum, says that most Chinese fans are residents of Beijing or Shanghai, in their 30s, well educated and have English proficiency. What an entry barrier.
A global fan group, called “Fighting 501st”, has 45membersfrom the Chinese mainland out of a worldwide base of 7,000 members. The Chinese branch was set up in 2005.
If the original six-part Star Wars had missed the Chinese boom, the new one, titled Star Wars: The Force Awakens, could reboot the franchise in the world’s secondlargest film market — expected to overtake the North American market in a year or two. While the new story has unsettled some long-time fans in other countries, it is perfectly positioned to win a generation of new viewers who are not emotionally moored to the original.
The results may well depend on the first week of its China release set for Saturday. If history is any indication, critical praise can get a movie only so far — specifically in the range of 500-800 million yuan ($77-$123 million) for a Hollywood sci-fi work. Interstellar grossed 755 million yuan and The Martian 586 million. Inception, arguably the biggest talk of the town for its genre, raked in 460 million in 2010, which could have easily doubled given the increase in newscreens.
Star Trek, the other Hollywood sci-fi franchise with deep roots, has fared even more poorly. Star Trek Into Darkness, the 2013 movie directed by J.J. Abrams, totaled only 351 million yuan in China, hardly an uplifting figure for aHollywood heavyweight.
Hollywood blockbusters that climbed over the billion-yuan benchmark in China have one thing incommon: computer-generated spectacles galore. They are review-proof. The Transformers franchise was lambasted withmore and more negative reviews, but its box-office performance simply improved with each new installment. The turnout of so-called “small-town youth”, the bulk of the new movie audience base, has shown an inordinate appetite for non-stop spectacles, be they chases, explosions or intergalactic fighting. They have not shown much patience for nuances of narrative art or fine dialogues. Not yet.
All this means the existing Chinese fan base for StarWars, even if it were 100 times larger than it is, will not be able to outperform a single episode of Tiny Times, the four-part glamour porn that attracted somewhere between 10 to 20 million teenage girls. Ideally, it should have built-in quality and interpretive material to help it hit the 500-million-yuan mark and then enough spectacles to tide it over 1 billion.
Ironically, too much back story, the kind of thing that invariably wins applause in theWest, could be a turnoff for the Chinese who are yet to warm up to it. Big-budget releases too dense with cross-references and allusions, a favorite with cinephiles, have met with blank stares or even open ridicule from the public. However, the taste of Chinese film audiences could be amorphous. In a frontier atmosphere anything can happen.
Contact the writer at raymondzhou@ chinadaily.com.cn
Yang Yang contributed to this story.
Chinese actor Donnie Yen (far right) with cast and crew members (from left to right) producer Kathleen Kennedy, director J.J. Abrams, actress Daisy Ridley and actor John Boyega at a promotional event in Shanghai for Star Wars’ latest installment StarWars:TheForceAwakens.