China came late to Star Wars but arrived in a big way when the latest film in the series broke Chinese box office records on Saturday, according to Walt Disney.
Star Wars: the Force Awakens is the seventh movie in a franchise that has spanned decades.
Disney said it did not have official box office results yet but estimated $33m in tickets were sold on Saturday, making it the highest opening for the company in China — and the highest Saturday opening in mainland cinema history.
China is expected to become the world's largest film market in the next two years. A strong performance by Star Wars there will put it in a position to surpass Avatar as the top-grossing movie ever released. Film market analysts have pointed out that the biggest films have performed similarly in China and the US in recent years.
The mainland opening attracted large crowds, many of them aficionados of the series who had first watched pirated copies of earlier films.
Hu Bin, a 30-year-old office worker in Shanghai, recalled relying on pirated discs and online websites to watch the Star Wars franchise. He was among the first viewers to watch the new film at a cinema in Shanghai. But he rated it "not as good as I thought".
Zhang Xiaobei, film critic for state broadcaster CCTV and a Star Wars fan, watched his first movie in the series in 1982. "The name itself brings back a lot emotion from our generation," he said. "The early eighties was a time in China when people craved contact with the outside world, we were insatiably curious about western culture, and we were stunned after seeing the special effects, and the scope of the human imagination."
Zi Feiyu, independent film critic, said: "The Star Wars series has a group of diehard fans in China, even though the old Star Wars series was never released in China."
The country's total box office take increased 49 per cent in 2015, according to state figures, generating $6.8bn in revenues. China is adding an average of 22 screens a day.
With global sales of about $1.6bn The Force Awakens remains behind Avatar, which made $2.8bn in 2009.