Star Wars: Why China is so important to The Force Awakens box office record

Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma

China is the key to Star Wars: The Force Awakens beating Avatar's worldwide box office record.

The 2009 film smashed all before it taking $2.8bn (£1.9bn) in cinemas.

The Force Awakens has taken in $1.5bn (£1bn) so far globally, and is already the fourth highest-grossing film of all time after just three weeks on release, according to Disney.

But the Star Wars prequels, released in China between 1999 and 2005, made less than $20m (£14m) in ticket sales.

Cleaner outside cinema in Beijing, China

Chinese film Monster Hunt holds the box office record in China, making $393m (£270m), according to Rentrak.

Furious 7 is the top foreign film, making $391m (£268m) last year.

Disney has been targeting China to try to make up for that.

In October 500 Stormtroopers joined fans on the Great Wall of China on the outskirts of Beijing to promote the movie.

Stormtroopers line the Great Wall of China
Stormtroopers line the Great Wall of China

It also released a trailer in the communist country with more detail than others released elsewhere ahead of the film's release on Saturday.

So why is Disney targeting China so much?

Money

The number of people going to the cinema in North America is dropping, despite the success of recent films like Star Wars, Jurassic World and Avengers.

In 2014, the US/Canada box office was $10.4bn (£7.1bn), down 5% from $10.9bn (£7.5bn) in 2013 and 1.26 billion cinema tickets were bought that year - the lowest number since 1995.

Chewbacca and Han Solo

The long-term view is a steady decline in movie audiences in America since the 1960s and beyond.

In comparison, China's audience went up by 36% between 2013 and 2014, with cinema admissions growing by 236% between 2009 and 2013.

US company Rentrack measures what consumers are watching and says the all-time record will be hard to beat.

Senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian told Newsbeat: "The list of biggest movies in China is inhabited by some of the most high profile brands/franchises in all of film.

Scene from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

"The success of Star Wars in China will have a profound impact on its ability to break into the $2bn (£1.3bn) worldwide box office club currently occupied by Avatar ($2.8bn - £1.9bn) and Titanic ($2.1bn - £1.4bn) and with film already at nearly $1.6bn (£1bn) after just 22 days, the question is not if, but when does it cross the $2bn mark.

"How high it can go from there remains to be seen, the $2.8bn total of Avatar is an incredibly tough number to beat."

New audiences

The original 1977 Star Wars film - A New Hope - was only shown for the first time in China last year.

Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux

So the franchise doesn't have much of a hold on the market there and there are fewer nostalgia viewings from older cinema-goers.

Paul Dergarabedian from Rentrak thinks that shouldn't stop this film breaking records.

"Some have wondered about whether or not the film has enough of a legacy and history with Chinese movie-goers to make it a massive hit there.

"But it would be unwise to underestimate the power of this film which has been breaking all the box office records and along with them, the box office rules."

However, in China there's also a quota of 34 foreign films which can be shown each year in China and the government decides which ones they are.

Luhan

Disney is using Chinese social media and pop star Luhan as its official ambassador for the film.

He's leading the campaign to introduce Star Wars to new audiences, according to the official Star Wars blog.

The film has received more than 700,000 mentions on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter.

Director JJ Abrams even watched the Chinese premiere in Shanghai with a Chinese audience in December.

So Star Wars is essentially playing catch-up with other franchises like Transformers - which is successful in China because it had a TV show that made it more popular in the cinema.

2014's Age of Extinction is the third biggest grossing film in China, according to Rentrak.

Star Wars spin-off film Rogue One will also feature Asian characters to appeal to the Chinese market.

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