SHANGHAI—When the first Star Wars movie was released in 1977, it never made it to China. Mao Zedong had died less than a year earlier, leaving behind a legacy of blocking western culture, and every film screened in the country was government-produced. The Star Wars mania that gripped the western world might have been taking place in a galaxy far, far away.
Four decades later, the force is strong in China. The Force Awakens, the latest movie in the series, shattered box office records when it opened here Saturday, raking in $53 million during its opening weekend. Globally, it's now the third-highest-grossing movie in history.
In a country that still strictly regulates foreign movies with a yearly quota, the success of Star Wars illustrates big changes in the film industry here, now the number two film market in the world by box office revenue.
China’s major cities have been blanketed this month with ads for The Force Awakens on city streets, in subways, and on TV. It’s hard to take a ride on the Shanghai Metro without watching the Millennium Falcon soaring by or seeing BB-8 rolling across a screen. Disney even placed 500 Stormtrooper figurines on the Great Wall for one promotional stunt.
The company also made all six previous movies available online on Tencent, a popular Netflix-like streaming service, and released a music video by Chinese pop superstar LuHan in which he dances in Jedi robes and sings about “feeling the Force.”
The big advertising push seems to have made up for the fact that most Chinese moviegoers don’t feel the same nostalgia that many Americans do for Star Wars. While fans grew up with the original films in the U.S., that wasn’t possible in China.
For the first few decades of the country’s Communist rule, western cultural influences were banned and the only movies shown were government-produced, propagandistic clunkers. Unsurprisingly, ticket sales were anemic. So in 1994, the film ministry launched a quota system allowing 10 foreign movies a year to be released in the country. The first foreign film to get wide release was The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford (who, of course, plays Han Solo in Star Wars).
Most of the movies approved under the quota system in the years that followed were Hollywood action blockbusters, which tend to translate well and avoid politically-sensitive material that might offend censors. “No one wanted to take a shot on an art film or a small indie film, so big blockbusters and summer popcorn films were what got equated with western films,” said Michael Berry, a University of California Santa Barbara professor who’s writing a book on Chinese cinema.
The three prequel Star Wars movies were all released under the quota in the late '90s and 2000s, but they didn’t do very well: Revenge of the Sith made just $11.7 million in box office revenue in 2005, with the previous two films falling even further behind.
After the United States sued China through the World Trade Organization over its quota policy, the film ministry raised the quota to 34 films a year in 2012. (Additional foreign films can also get smaller releases outside of this.)
To get around the quota system, more and more Hollywood studios are now making films as co-productions with Chinese studios, which can mean anything from doing some post-production work in China to casting Chinese stars. The latest Mission Impossible movie, for example, gave well-known Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu a bit part with two lines. Iron Man 3 added four minutes of extra scenes with Chinese actors that were only included in the movie’s Chinese release.
The next Star Wars film, the spinoff Rogue One, will star two of the most popular male actors in the country, Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen.
“Almost every major Hollywood action franchise is casting major Chinese actors in these films, A-list Chinese stars,” Berry said. “Everybody knows China is now the number two box office in the world… and they want to appeal to these audiences.”
For the Force Awakens, the advertising push seems to be paying off. Chen Tao, 31, who started the StarWarsChina.com fangroup and forum, said he’s seen a spike in interest about the series in recent weeks. He expects group’s social media pages to double to about 100,000 followers overall by the time Episode Seven leaves theaters.
“Chinese audiences often follow the trend from the west,” Chen said in a phone interview. “If a film is really popular abroad—in the U.S.—it will also likely to perform well in China.”
Chen, who works in finance in Shanghai, said he was hooked on the series after watching The Phantom Menace in theaters in 1999. Like other fans, he then found the original movies online and on pirated DVDs. He loved getting to see Episode Seven on the big screen, although he noted that it wasn't as good as the original six.
But besides die-hards like Chen—who in his free time is helping translate a relatively obscure series of Star Wars novels—most people here are getting their first taste of X-Wings and Jedi from The Force Awakens. As they walked out of one Shanghai theater on Sunday, moviegoers said they enjoyed it even if they hadn’t seen the previous episodes. Lu Jiajun, 28, said he planned to watch the other six films online “immediately.”
“I didn’t get full from this. I’m still hungry for the other movies,” Lu said.
Other viewers wished the quota for foreign films was raised. “Of course” foreign films are better than domestic ones, said Ke Cao, 25. “Especially Hollywood movies and American movies, the quality is much higher, the effects are nicer.”
“I think the more movies the better,” he said.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.
Shen Qiu is a student at Columbia University.