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Will the Force Be With ‘The Last Jedi’ in China?

There’s little doubt that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” will attract a following in China, where it opens this Friday. How big a following is the question.

China is the last major market to release “The Last Jedi,” three weeks after its bow in the U.S. and other major territories. Globally, the movie is now the 19th-biggest moneymaker of all time, with a worldwide total of $1.09 billion to the end of Tuesday. Its performance in China will determine how much further up the rankings it goes, and how close it gets to the $2.07 billion haul two years ago of “The Force Awakens.”

Disney, the leading Hollywood studio in China last year, has pulled out the marketing stops for “The Last Jedi” in the Middle Kingdom, mindful that the “Star Wars” franchise doesn’t quite inspire the same event-movie awe there as it does elsewhere. “The Force Awakens” earned $124 million in China; spinoff movie “Rogue One,” which featured Chinese stars Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen in significant roles, took $69.5 million.

By waiting till Friday, “The Last Jedi” will be the first Hollywood spectacular to open in China since the country’s late-December blackout period, when only local-language titles are permitted major outings. Disney pressed Chinese authorities for the later opening date rather than one in the crowded first half of December. The film is set for a gargantuan release on 25,000 screens, enough to give more than 130,000 showings a day; a strong opening weekend is essential, with “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” releasing only a week later.

Although Hollywood studios are required to sub-distribute through a state-owned company, they can supplement with their own co-marketing spend and tailored efforts. Disney, which boasts its Shanghai theme park and a muscular consumer products business in China, is in prime position to do so. “The Last Jedi’s” marketing campaign attached trailers to all of the major local blockbusters during the blackout period. An exclusive collaboration with Wanda, China’s leading cinema chain, promoted the “Star Wars Art Zone” in 110 multiplexes nationwide. A traveling event visited eight malls in the top seven box office cities.

Before Christmas, stars Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill, director Rian Johnson and producer Ram Bergman went to Shanghai to promote the movie ahead of a red-carpet event and China premiere at Shanghai Disney Resort on Dec. 20. Ridley used that visit to shoot cover photos for an issue of women’s magazine Grazia China, which is now out in time for the movie’s opening weekend.

Other marketing tie-ins were with Pepsi, Samsung and Renault, while digital partnerships were struck with Alibaba-owned streaming platform Youku, which launched a “Star Wars” zone on New Year’s Day; with Alibaba’s Taobao e-commerce and ticketing platform; and with Pi Tu, a leading camera-filter app.

One commentator has even suggested that recent aspects of the “Star Wars” storyline bear a strong resemblance to the founding mythology of the Chinese Communist Party. Both involve the establishment of a new order that replaces a moribund dynasty, and see rebels scurrying off into exile.

Whether that will actually help “The Last Jedi” connect with Chinese audiences is debatable. But the new film does use first-of-its-kind character description subtitling and an expanded interpretation of dialogue, so that moviegoers who are new to the galaxy far, far away can catch up with the backstory and earlier character development.

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