Selling Star Wars
Watching the trailer for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was one of the most nostalgic moments of my life. As a long-time fan of the series, I had waited a lifetime for a new Star Wars film, and I couldn’t believe it was on its way. The trailer thrilled me. I was captivated by the new characters, the lightsabers, the John Williams score. Star Wars was back, and I was satisfied. As I sat in the dark, grinning, I prepared to rewind the trailer and watch it again, when I realized it wasn’t over. A shot that cut to the inside of the Millennium Falcon found me holding my breath. Han Solo and Chewbacca ran aboard the ship, and with a lopsided grin straight out of my fondest childhood memories, Han said, “Chewie, we’re home.” Then, in blaring letters, was the title of the film. It was perfect! I had goosebumps! I felt the way I had while watching Star Wars for the first time, and I was stunned. As the film got closer, more trailers of a similar nature flooded the internet, and new toys, shirts and games started popping up in stores. Star Wars was everywhere, and because I loved Star Wars so much, I was totally glad to see it everywhere. It was a brilliant marketing strategy.
It turns out, however, that this was more effective as a marketing strategy than a storytelling technique. No part of me was impressed by the film itself, with its constant callbacks to the original series and various fan-pandering moments. The trailer used nostalgic imagery and callbacks to lure me in. I was told I was getting more of the same, and I wanted that. But when it came to the story, getting more of the same was, as it turned out, not at all what I had wanted. The reason? I wanted to get more of the same feeling I had gotten watching Star Wars as a kid, that same sense of wonder, mystery, and intrigue, that had swept me off of my feet. Rebranding the plot of A New Hope did the opposite of this. It was stale. Add to the bill killing Han Solo, the character whose reappearance had gotten me so hyped for the film, and it came off as not only disappointing, but slightly offensive.
I know many people liked The Force Awakens, and I want to say that there’s nothing wrong with that. By all accounts, there was nothing technically wrong with the film. It had amazing effects, a wonderful musical score, and one of the highest production values in the history of modern cinema. To me, though, it felt hollow, and for a long time, I didn’t understand why. Why did marketing based on nostalgia work, when the nostalgia completely ruined the film itself for me? And why did some people absolutely love it? In the two years since its release, I’ve pondered these two questions endlessly, and now, after seeing the marketing process repeated two times over with the release of Rogue One and the upcoming The Last Jedi, I think I have the answers to both. It all comes from the idea that Star Wars isn’t so much a story now, as a product, and Disney’s focus seems to be less in the writing and more in the selling of their newest films. It’s taken me these past few years to fully understand my perspectives, and there are several experiences I’ve had that have helped me in that process. One of those experiences was seeing the film The Wolf of Wallstreet.
If you’re familiar with the movie, you probably remember the scenes about the pen. At the end of the film, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, a multi-millionaire turned motivational speaker, is giving a speech to a group of aspiring business leaders. To make a point, he turns to his audience and hands the person in front of him a pen, saying, “Sell me this pen.” The man attempts this, describing its virtues in as lurid a fashion as possible. DiCaprio, however, cuts him off, skipping over him and moving to the next person. This is repeated several times, and all of the men say how great the pen is, and all the things that it can do. None of these attempts to sell the pen based on its qualities are successful.
Earlier on in the film, when DiCaprio is starting up his stock business, the same scene is played out, where he turns to his fellow stockbrokers and asks them to “Sell him this pen.” His coworker’s reply is simple. Taking the pen, he asks, “Why don’t you do me a favor and write your name down on this napkin for me?” DiCaprio replies, “I don’t have a pen”, and his friend answers, “Exactly.” The successful way to sell the pen, according to the film, is in supply and demand. The pen isn’t sold because of its quality as a pen, it is only sold when the consumer needs to have a pen.
This is how Star Wars is selling tickets to its films. The executives at Disney have identified that there is a need amongst the fanbase, and if they capitalize on that need, they will make a profit. This need calls for a film that delivers the same amazing feelings that the fans felt when they watched Star Wars for the first time as children. That is why everything Disney does to market the movie tries to remind viewers of that feeling. From Disney’s perspective, it is logical that this need, and the hype built up around it, should be met with a supply of a new Star Wars movie that also runs on nostalgia, and runs as closely along the lines of the original films as possible.
This is where the conundrum lies. The feeling that made the original Star Wars films so amazing did not come from the fact that they were Star Wars films. It was the inventiveness, the originality, the newness, the excitement, and the stakes of those movies that made them so wonderful. A retread of the same storytelling elements cannot reproduce those emotions, it can only work to the contrary. This is something the people making Star Wars films don't understand, and as the film market is oversaturated with remakes of other amazing films from the previous century, all trying to follow the model Disney has set with their new Star Wars franchise, it's clear that more and more filmmakers are getting the wrong idea.
Right now, Star Wars is trying to be the next big sellout, trying to capitalize on the success that George Lucas found when he made the original Star Wars films, and that’s where the countless fans who loved the movie come in - right now, it's working. The Force Awakens smashed records at the box office, and received rave reviews. Meanwhile, similar nostalgia films are doing similarly well, because they are following the same formula.
Soon, however, I think that audiences will become more aware of what's going on. As a huge Redditor, I watched the debate about The Force Awakens unfold in one of the biggest online Star Wars fan communities around. The Star Wars subreddit was split between people who were satisfied by the nostalgia-driven elements of the movie, and those who weren't. Overall, what I noticed was that the superfans, the ones who watched the movies religiously and knew every line of dialogue by heart, weren't as happy with the movie. The everyday fans, who had seen Star Wars once or twice in their lives, were more apt to appreciate it. But as those people were brought further into the fold of Star Wars by the new film, I noticed something. The amount of people who didn’t like the film grew as time went on. Go check the recent IMDB reviews for the film - they’re all overwhelmingly negative, and yet the film still has a high rating of 8.1. The newer Star Wars film, Rogue One, used similar marketing/storytelling tactics to the Force Awakens. It was reviewed much less positively. And now, as more and more old films and series outside the Star Wars franchise are being revitalized by the industry, critics and audiences alike are starting to talk negatively. The hype worked for a minute, but as time has gone on, people have started to grow weary of being sold the same stories they loved as kids, over and over again. As Star Wars continues to pander to the same basic elements, I believe that people will get sick of it. I don’t think that the next George Lucas will be directing a Star Wars film.