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Why 'Star Wars' Tickets May Be A Tough Sell In China


The Force is awakening in China. "Star Wars" - the new "Star Wars" movie opens in that country this weekend. China is the world's second-largest movie market after the U.S., and theater owners hope for huge ticket sales. But here's a question. How do you market a film franchise to Chinese, many of whom never grew up with the original films? Well, to answer that question we turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt, who was outside the Shanghai Grand Theater a few days ago. Hi, Frank. Good morning.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, David. How are you doing?

GREENE: I'm good. So how excited are people, and how much do people in China know about the "Star Wars" movies?

LANGFITT: Well, until recently they didn't know that much. You've got to remember, when you and I were growing up - 1977 when it came out - Mao had just died a year earlier. The Cultural Revolution had just ended here. And that was a time when everything foreign was pretty much banned. Then the first "Star Wars" prequel, that came here in 2005, and it went nowhere. So recently, I was talking to a guy named T.J. Green. He's an American expat. He's been in theaters here for a long time in China. And he kind of remembers what it was like back then in 2005. Here's how he put it.

T.J. GREEN: At the beginning, a lot of people were confusing "Star Wars" with "Star Trek." So there really wasn't the type of following that you would have in the West or in other Asian countries.

GREENE: Oh my God, confusing those two franchises would offend a lot of people who love those two different movies.

LANGFITT: Right, but people here, of course, didn't know 'cause they just hadn't grown up with it.

GREENE: How are people marketing this movie planning to fix this problem to make sure that people get excited?

LANGFITT: Well, Disney's really going all out because this is such a huge market. So they're doing a big education campaign. When I was coming over in the back of the cab, on the screen I was watching a "Star Wars" trailer. Recently, they put about 500 models of "Star Wars" stormtroopers on the Great Wall. They've even got a guy named Lu Han - he's sort of a Chinese version of kind of an early Justin Bieber. He's actually working as an ambassador to kind of promote the movie with people here.

GREENE: Well, Frank, you're at this movie theater. I mean, I'm imagining a place where there are, you know, the posters for the movies that are playing outside. Does it look like it does in the United States? And what do the posters look like?

LANGFITT: It's interesting. I'm looking at the poster right now, and there's a really big difference from what you'd see in the States. One of the main stars, John Boyega, a British actor, he plays Finn. And he's actually been shrunk down, and he's to the side. And this actually created a bit of a controversy here because he's black. And people wondered if there was some racism involved. Africans who live in China routinely complain about racism. And there was a concern that that might be going on here.

GREENE: You're saying he's like - it's a shrunken version of him on these posters?

LANGFITT: It is. And he's actually - of all the actors, he's the smallest one.

GREENE: Are we seeing the other usual characters - Chewbacca, Harrison Ford?

LANGFITT: Actually, Harrison Ford is very prominent. But Chewbacca is completely missing.


LANGFITT: There's no sign of him. Yeah, he's not here. I think the idea is most Chinese would just have no idea what a Wookie was. And so why would they go to a movie to see this giant hairy creature?

GREENE: I guess after they see this movie, though, maybe in the next movie, there will be a lot more Chewbacca because you can't get enough Chewbacca.

LANGFITT: I agree.

GREENE: Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David.

GREENE: That was NPR's Frank Langfitt who, like me, grew up on "Star Wars." And he was speaking to us from Shanghai, where "The Force Awakens" is opening this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.