Star Wars: The Force Awakens promotion
Courtesy of Disney

China remains too unique a market for anyone to be absolutely sure how well “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will do at the theatrical box office. Disney is doing little to manage expectations up or down, and everything to ensure that the score will be huge.

The film opens in the Middle Kingdom on Saturday January 9, making it the last territory in the world to receive the blockbuster. Estimates for total gross currently range from $107 million according to local box office trackers, to as high as $230 million, according to securities firm Nomura Holdings, which sees it equaling “Jurassic World.”

Neither of those numbers will come close to challenging Chinese box office records set last year by “Monster Hunt” and “Fast & Furious 7,” which both ended up north of $380 million. And neither will be enough to see the China score lift “The Force Awakens” above the worldwide total record held by “Avatar.”

But even the lower number would be a record for the “Star Wars” franchise in China. That’s because the first six films have not been released commercially in the world’s second largest theatrical market — until now – though they have played on television and in legal and illegal home entertainment formats.

Other factors complicating the guesswork include:
– Saturday releases have been increasingly rare for Hollywood films;
– Star Wars is a brand that skews towards an older and more pop-culture aware target than the fast-changing Chinese audience (which is getting younger and increasingly based in smaller towns and cities);
– How competing films will play.

One thing working in the film’s favor is that Chinese audiences are generally sophisticated and well-read (online) and are already well-aware of “The Force Awakens” phenomenon in other territories.

Disney has pulled out plenty of stops to use that momentum, and to prepare Chinese audiences for the “Star Wars” release.

Talent (Daisy Ridley and John Boyega,) robots BB8 and R2D2, director JJ Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy, were all on hand at a Dec. 27 premiere in Shanghai.

Where the film lacks heritage in China, Disney has replaced that with a campaign that emphasizes scale, action and consumer culture. Most importantly, it contracted with local pop star and social media icon Lu Han as brand ambassador to introduce the brand to audiences. Lu released a song on Dec. 24, while his “Inner Force” music video debuted on Thursday (Jan. 7.)

Disney also turned up its pre-existing consumer goods machine in China to play up light sabers, and clothing, luggage and dairy products in tie-ups with Uniqlo, Anta and Yili respectively.

Replacing the traditional yellow colors for the franchise logo for a metallic silver, posters were tweaked to emphasize action and battle scenes. A second round of six posters later introduced characters. These included a solo poster for Boyega, who Western media suggested had been victim of a racist snub.

Trailers and TV partnerships have played strongly. The trailer has enjoyed close to 40 million views since Dec. 10, while Luhan’s Weibo (social media) postings have achieved 280 million views. In more recent days it has added a shareable emoticon campaign on Tencent’s QQ platform.

One analyst reckons that after more than 30 days of a blackout period, during which no major U.S. pictures have been released since “Point Break” in the first half of December, Chinese audiences have been starved of Hollywood movies and will flock to “Star Wars.” A similar phenomenon boost helped “Terminator: Genisys” after the summer blackout.

The Saturday opening day numbers then could be huge — $30 million is possible – which could be either misleading or create enough excitement to set off a snowball effect.

Disney has declined to reveal how many screens the film has obtained, though as a revenue share title handled by state-owned China Film Group, it is certain to be substantial. The film will play on more than 260 IMAX screens, or very nearly all available IMAX venues in the country, and sources close to IMAX suggest that the giant screens do particularly well with sci-fi and fantasy movies.

Potentially limiting the film’s ability to rack up records are the market’s structural limits, which include competition from other films as well as a run that has been limited to 30 days maximum. That means it will come off screens on by Feb. 8, the first day of the peak Chinese New Year season.

While some commentators have suggested that Chinese regulators will be over-cautious in their attempts to prevent another “Fast & Furious 7” breakout, that seems an unreasonably pessimistic scenario. Other U.S. titles releasing in January include “The Last Witch Hunter” on Jan. 15, “The Walk” on Jan. 22 and “Alvin And The Chipmunks” on Jan. 22. However, they all seem set for smaller releases, and “Sherlock: The Abominable Bride” released on Jan. 4 and should have done most of its business by the time “Star Wars” kicks in.

“Star Wars”’ biggest competitive threat comes from the release of “Kung Fu Panda 3” on Jan. 29. With two huge previous installments and a made in China tag helping it along the way, the Oriental Dreamworks picture has every expectation to be one of the top five films of the year in China.

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