Marketing & Star Wars

With just over a month to go until the highly anticipated release of Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens, it’s getting pretty difficult to avoid the combined might of Disney and Lucasfilm’s marketing divisions. Despite this, fans still don’t really know what it’s about and the filmmakers like it that way. There won’t even be any press screenings in advance of the full theatrical release.

Even for the most wary of fans, everything is looking pretty positive so far for the franchise’s big comeback. Practical Effects. A fanboy director. A welcome move towards a more diverse cast. Then again, there were similar levels of excitement before The Phantom Menace came out and look what that got us… Even so, the marketing of this new film has been relentless in the run up to its December release. Just in case.

In the last few weeks alone we’ve had four big reveals of new footage and each has been met with thunderous applause and rabid speculation as to what it might reveal about the plot. The action figures have been in the toy shops since September, and the product tie-ins have been lining the supermarket shelves for weeks.

A cute little Ewok.

Of course, this is nothing new. Star Wars has always been about the marketing and merchandising deals. Think back to the Ewoks of Return of the Jedi. As the cuddliest depiction of the Viet Cong ever to grace our screens, they would set the precedent for all of the kid-pandering nonsense that came with the Prequel Trilogy.

There are even rumours that George Lucas specifically swapped out a Wookiee planet for the scene on Endor quite late on in pre-production as part of a merchandise deal to secure the studio’s funding for Jedi.

So the intense marketing of The Force Awakens should be expected, but this is also the first new film in the franchise being released in the social media era. That means everything from Twitter emojis and a special version of the Action Movie FX app, to emotional viral hashtag campaigns. The content of the official Instagram account has been an irresistible blend of nostalgia and innovation.

The first footage of the new film, November 2014

The trailer release schedule has been perfectly calibrated to generate the most conversation possible online. The internet has been swamped with fan theories and remixes for months now. A first teaser was released a full year before the film comes out, and director J.J. Abrams had personally pushed for this, as he admitted in a recent interview for Wired:

“I actually personally pushed to have a teaser come out a year before, just because it felt like, as a fan of Star Wars, if I could see even the littlest thing I’d be psyched a year out. Why not? So we did.”

This initial footage was sufficiently exciting to keep most fans happy until the second trailer was released in April, followed shortly after by a lavish Annie Leibovitz photo shoot for Vanity Fair and an infuriatingly vague “behind the scenes” video first shown at Comic Con.

Some space pirates, by Annie Leibovitz

The “official trailer” (as opposed to the first two “teasers”) was unleashed upon the world during halftime of Monday Night Football on the 20th October. As the game was shown on ESPN, a Disney subsidiary, this was a particularly savvy piece of brand synergy. Combining the enthusiasm of two disparate groups of fans boosted ratings for the game and led to record breaking pre-order ticket sales for the film.

The full official trailer, October 2015

Despite Director JJ Abrams having said that this was the last trailer to be released before the film comes out, it wasn’t strictly true. With none of the customary buzz or trailers-to-the-trailer that preceded the other releases, the Japanese trailer dropped from nowhere on the 6th of November. A fanbase that had barely finished rendering their YouTube reaction videos to the third trailer suddenly had to rethink everything they thought they knew about themselves. New action sequences, new voiceovers, new music; new theories about everything.

The seemingly random appearance of an international trailer created enough buzz on its own, and it was very telling that out of all the international markets, Disney chose Japan for this particular stunt. As Asia became Hollywood’s biggest market in 2013, it makes sense to have a geographically specific strategy, and only the U.S. and China are in front of Japan at the box office. The very content of the international trailer itself was aimed at the Japanese market. The cute new astromech droid, BB-8, features heavily as Japan is well known for it’s love of robots doing robot things. TIME even went so far was analysing the Japanese subtitles themselves for clues about the film.

After two full length trailers, fans might finally have felt ready to have a cup of tea and a sit down, remembering that there is an actual feature length film coming at the end of all of this. But nope, Twitter had to go and share yet more footage on the 8th of November. This time labeled as a TV Spot, it isn’t simply a rehash of what we’ve already seen, but contains loads more new information for those in the know. A few days later and suddenly Shonda Rhimes is introducing yet another spot during the mid-season finale How To Get Away With Murder (on ABC, another Disney owned channel). It just keeps on coming.

And it keeps on working. Every time something has been labeled as the “final” trailer or as a surprise extra treat for fans, yet another thing hits and rather than put people off it seems to making make people even more excited. It would be overwhelming if it wasn’t for the most interesting aspect of their strategy so far, the now-traditional Abrams secrecy. Rather than being scared of spoiling the film for themselves, fans seem to be trusting that Lucasfilm know what they’re doing and won’t knowingly give anything away in the official promotional materials.

Very little is known about the plot itself, even if we know the names and backstories of some really rather minor characters already. There is the danger that audiences could feel manipulated, such as when they insisted that Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t playing classic villain Khan in the J.J. Abrams’ directed Star Trek Into Darkness even though he was totally playing Khan after all. Abrams has since admitted his regret for that whole hoohaa, so you’d hope that this time it will be different.

Nope, no Luke here

And yet. Where the hell is Luke Skywalker in all of this? He hasn’t appeared in any of the promotional material so far, excluding what looks like his robotic hand in the second trailer and voiceover lifted from Return of the Jedi. The #WhereIsLuke speculation could turn out to be the Khan-troversy all over again. It remains to be seen whether it’s a genius marketing stunt or yet another instance of mismanaged media misdirection. Perhaps he finally got to go down to Toshi Station and pick up those power converters.

The rest of the cast have featured predictably heavily in both the posters and the trailers. The main character now seems to be Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, and she is the first female lead in a Star Wars film. Alongside her is Finn, played by John Boyega. Boyega has already had to shut down a minor internet controversy over the casting of a black actor but that doesn’t seem to have put him off. There is even a female villain in the form of Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and Abrams has revealed that some of the Stormtroopers are played by women, though thankfully we won’t be able to tell which ones. There isn’t any form fitting armour in sight.

The cast read-through of Star Wars Episode VII at Pinewood Studios. Photo Credit: David James

Disney and Lucasfilm have been touting their newfound commitment to diversity right from the first casting announcement and the hope is that this will allow a whole swathe of previously ignored kids see themselves up on the screen for the first time. Black kids don’t just have to play Lando in the playground any more. Of course the franchise, and the industry as a whole, could still do better, but the so far the Star Wars team is making all the right moves and saying all the right things.

Industry experts suggested that Disney bought Marvel and Star Wars in order to secure the “boys” market that would compliment the Disney Princess line “for girls.” However, the predominance of the female characters in the Star Wars marketing so far would suggest otherwise (even if 70% of those pre-ordering tickets were men in their 30s). Disney recently announced that they are retiring the “Slave Leia” merchandise, which is another positive step. However, when it comes to action figures, they have learnt nothing since botching The Avengers toys. Despite Rey being the main character, there are still playsets solely featuring male figurines.

Despite all these potential pitfalls of promoting such an iconic franchise, it really would be astonishing if Disney and Lucasfilm managed to properly mess this up. A new Star Wars film is possibly the easiest sell in film history. As the tagline in the newest teaser suggests, “Every Generation Has A Story.” Firstly there is the generation that grew up with the Original Trilogy who are now taking their children to see the new films,; Then there are the fans that grew up with the Prequel Trilogy who are looking for something that atones for those past sins. The previous films essentially did the advertising for this installment, and all Disney has to do is occasionally remind us of them.

It all comes down to The Force Awakens itself now, which is easily forgotten when we’re all so comfortably aboard the Hype Train. A $4.06 billion acquisition may seem too big to fail, but all of this planning and marketing genius could be undone in a single moment of madness. Get it right however, and the future of the galaxy is secured for another generation.

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