Star Wars’ Failure in China — and What It Means Beyond China
Recent writing about Disney’s recent travails in China the principal topic has, of course, been Mulan, but I did run across a piece in the New York Times from January that discussed how Star Wars flopped there.
The piece had two points of particular interest.
#1. The movies did poorly in China because the nostalgia operative elsewhere was not a factor in that country. That is to say, China missed the moment when Star Wars came out — way back in the 1970s.
#2. The movies did poorly because they were simply not very accessible.
Point #1, however unintentionally, can be taken as confirmation of just how much the new entries in the Star Wars saga has relied on that nostalgic appeal — on people seeing a Star Wars movie because they are fond of Star Wars, and fond of Star Wars because of old memories, rather than what the movies may have to offer as movies in the current moment. As I have argued elsewhere, what really set Star Wars apart at the time of its appearance — its blending what was still novel high concept action-adventure with space opera and with myth, its own appeal to nostalgia for still earlier things (Saturday morning serials, Flash Gordon-ish space opera, the simplicities of the classic-style Western) — has long since become standard.
Point #2, however slightly, addressed something I have long thought about when looking at the more successful blockbusters. Yes, one sees space operas at the top of the charts — with Star Wars the most obvious case. However, superhero films, connected with present-day Earth, indeed present-day America, and not requiring the audience to think about galactic empires and such, are easier to sell consistently to a broad audience. The greatest example of this is, of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, cranking out hit after hit while one struggles to find any success really comparable to Lucas’ old series (albeit, not for lack of trying).
While dooming the films’ prospects in China, these two points seem significant far beyond it. Nostalgia proved a slender basis for the vast ambitions Disney had for the franchise. The films were by no means a complete failure (the new trilogy took in $4.5 billion, the five movies $6 billion global), but Solo made it clear that the force of nostalgia, and the comparative intricacy of the product, made it an unlikely basis for the kind of continuous output and continuous earnings the Marvel Cinematic Universe has achieved.
Of course, Disney has since changed tacks. It is now emphasizing TV instead. Especially given the ascent of streaming, and the difficulties theaters are facing, I suspect that for once they were (however unintentionally) ahead of the curve here — that we may see an increasing shift of big franchises from the big screen to the small, chasing home viewer dollars. I suspect that going along with this there will also be smaller budgets, and less reliance on the kind of big-screen bombast already going stale as the draw. Indeed, cinematically we may be looking at the end of one era — and the beginning of another.
Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.