Editor’s Note: This post was originally posted on guest writer Chris Thilk’s blog. We are pleased to re-post this detailed discussion of the transmedia storytelling for this “relaunch” of Star Wars.
It’s tempting to use this introduction as an excuse to go down memory lane. In fact I’m guessing some 97% of the reviews on various fan news sites are taking that tack. With a property like Star Wars that everyone has such fond personal memories of it’s an easy editorial tack to take. “I remember this…,” “Star Wars meant this to me as a child…” and so on. I could write a 10-page article about my own recollections of the movies, the toys, the home video releases, the video games, the books, the comics and everything else and make the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens into something that matters to me because, essentially, nostalgia. But I can’t think that’s going to be the most compelling opening to this and I did that eight years ago when I wrote about Revenge of the Sith so won’t.
Instead I’ll talk about what a big deal it is that Star Wars is back with original stories on the big screen. While the eight years since Revenge of the Sith haven’t been the same as the eight between Return of the Jedi and and release of the “Heir to the Jedi” novel, a period where the franchise went largely fallow with very few exceptions, it has been a period of great upheaval. The Expanded Universe expanded with ever more comics and books, was contracted and unified with the “New Jedi Order” novels and ultimately scrapped after the biggest change of all: The 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney.
Announced shortly after that acquisition, The Force Awakens is the first time Star Wars has come to the big screen without the direct involvement of George Lucas, who turned the franchise over to direct J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, though reports differ on whether that’s sat well with him in retrospect. But after the disappointing (though I like much about them) Prequel Trilogy, Lucas remaining at arm’s length is something that has sat well with fans, who saw his direction and writing as part of the problems with the Menace/Clones/Sith. On the contrary, it sometimes seems the EU was received better at times because the writers and directors of the books, cartoons and more were free to work outside of Lucas’ framework while still adhering to the rules of the universe he’d established.
Since the Prequels are held in something less than high regard by fans and critics, The Force Awakens has taken the approach of focusing on nostalgia for the Original Trilogy and continuing the story of the characters from those films. Set roughly 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi (which came out 32 years ago, so yeah), this movie focuses on new characters like Finn (John Boyega), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) while also bringing back fan-favorites like Han Solo, Leia Organa, Chewbacca, R2-D2, C-3PO and, of course, Luke Skywalker. It turns out the Empire didn’t exactly fall the day the Rebels won the Battle of Endor but has morphed into The First Order, an entity that’s just as evil and just as dedicated to bringing the universe under its’ thumb and personified by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Also posing a threat to our heroes – many of whom are now part of The Resistance, a new iteration of The Rebellion – is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a mysterious figure who seems to have as his mission the continuation of Darth Vader’s crusade from decades before.
The studio and filmmakers, while certainly wanting to sell this as an original story, are also counting on a heavy nostalgia factor here. Specifically they’re going to be going after two audiences: 40-50 year olds who were kids when the Original Trilogy came out and now have kids of their own who maybe were too young for the Prequels and ~20 year olds who were kids for the Prequels and likely enjoyed them but maybe have become more jaundiced toward those movies under the weight of cultural pressure to disavow them as lesser entries. Combine the marketing juggernaut provided by the Disney organization, mix in the savvy and inclination toward mystery that comes with everything Abrams is involved with, stir with the audience awareness mentioned above, and you have a campaign that could get super-interesting. After all that, let’s take a look.
The first teaser poster was just that: A teaser. All it has is the title treatment against a familiar looking field of stars with the promise that the movie is coming in December. There’s nothing all that invigorating about it, but it’s still enough to get people excited.
The second poster was debuted and released exclusively at Star Wars Celebration along with the second trailer. This one has a lot more going on and sports the work of the iconic Drew Struzan, he of so many classic one-sheets. That fans would get a Struzan poster was a nice touch that certainly played into that fanbase’s hopes for the movie. Finn and Rey are the main elements of the poster, Finn with his (?) lightsaber and Rey with her staff. Behind them on the right you see a squadron of X-Wings flying out of the sun. On the left Kylo Ren with his saber hovers in the background while a fleet of Tie Fighters flies through space. At the bottom and next to the title treatment is Han Solo, blaster drawn and looking every bit as grizzled and kind of annoyed as you’d expect.
This is a great first effort that shows off the character but no story – a common element throughout the campaign – in a visually striking way. That it’s Struzan doing the work is just the cherry on top as this really wouldn’t work otherwise.
The theatrical one-sheet crams as many elements into the design as possible. It evokes some of Struzan’s previous work but is made of photos, not artwork. So the heroes form the core of the design, with Rey and Finn at the top and Han, Leia, Poe, Chewbacca and the droids below them. Kylo Ren and Starkiller Base are on the left and right of the top, respectively while Phasma and a squadron of Stormtroppers are at the bottom, just above and around the title treatment. Just above them you see X-Wings on one side and the Millennium Falcon being chased by Tie-Fighters on the other.
Again, there’s almost no information about the movie’s story conveyed here outside of the fact that yeah, Rey and Finn are the main good guys and Kylo Ren is going to be the primary bad guy. Or at least they’re the characters the marketing team most wants to draw your attention to. This was our first look at Starkiller Base, which was a big reveal. What’s promised here is a mix of old and new as a new generation of both heroes and villains takes up the mantle from those we’ve seen before. But fans of the original movies are also comforted by the presence of those original characters (with the exception of Luke, which caused no end of speculation) and assured that yes, they’re still a part of the story.
It’s great, but yeah, I would have loved to have seen this by Struzan. Sorry.
When there were just 100 days left before the movie’s release the @StarWars Twitter account released a whole batch of new character posters featuring Kylo Ren, C-3PO and R2-D2, Captain Phasma and Rey. They were all beautiful pieces of artwork and all had the same general look and feel and were a nice treat for fans marking the movie getting closer and closer.
Another series of character posters came next, one each for Leia, Han, Kylo Ren, Finn and Rey. Each one was positioned with some sort of weapon cutting through the image. So Han has his blaster, Rey her staff, Ren and Finn their lightsabers and Leia her…command center? This was the first hint that she’d taken on some sort of senior leadership role within the Resistance and wouldn’t be brandishing a weapon so much as telling other people where to point theirs.
The final (or at least that’s what we thought) poster was an IMAX-specific one that made sure people knew they could see it in the big format. It’s simple but works really well by just showing Rey and BB-8 walking through the desert toward the massive sun off in the distance. Again, it’s simple but it sells the experience emote than anything so it works. Poe finally became part of the poster campaign with a stand-alone character one sheet that shows the X-Wing pilot looking a bit battle worn as he looks off-camera. BB-8 also got his turn in the spotlight with a poster that took a shot from one of the many trailers.
In a fun nod to the marketing for the original movie three retro posters were released that featured the look and feel of teasers for the first movie but with copy and branding that was for The Force Awakens. In a campaign that traded significantly on nostalgia this was the most overt play, though it is a bit fun.
The first official teaser was released around Thanksgiving 2014, over a year from the movie’s opening and was all about presenting quick flashes of the new story. So it opens with a shot of John Boyega in Stormtrooper uniform looking shocked and in some sort of peril. Then BB-8 rolling through the sand (and instantly creating one of the Top 10 GIFs of 2014). Then a squad of Stormtroopers (note the new helmet design) exiting some sort of transport. Then Daisy Ridley’s Rey taking flight on a speeder. Then Oscar Isaac’s Poe piloting a group of X-Wings. Then Kylo Ren igniting a lightsaber. Finally, we see the Falcon executing a ridiculous maneuver and taking on a couple of Tie-Fighters.
The trailer was designed to get people asking questions. What’s the little ball droid? What’s with that lightsaber with the cross-guards? What’s with the new-look X-Wings? This was all about creating moments that yes, could be GIFd easily, as well as spurring people to want to find out more, to create a sense of not knowing around the movie that would then turn into anticipation as answers were slowly revealed.
About six months later the second teaser was released in connection with Star Wars Celebration. This time we pan across a desert landscape until we see a downed Star Destroyer, which again is just a “WTH” moment, especially since there’s also a crashed X-Wing in the foreground, meaning we’re seeing the aftermath of some sort of battle, something we don’t usually see in these movies. There’s a shot of someone holding Vader’s burnt and twisted helmet (pulled from the funeral pyre on Endor, presumably), a cloaked figure reaching out with his metal hand and touching R2-D2 and someone being handed what looks to be Luke’s original lightsaber (meaning the one he inherited from Anakin). We get our first look at Phasma as well as more footage of the Falcon, X-Wings and more before Han and Chewie appear before us, with Han saying “Chewie…we’re home” in what may have been one of 2015’s biggest geek-out moments.
The notable thing about this trailer – aside from all the new footage – is the narration. There was some discussion about this being someone else, but it’s clear to me that it’s Luke providing the dialogue here, giving the same speech he did in the middle of Return of the Jedi when he told Leia the truth of their relationship, but with the addition of “…You have that power too” to an unknown person. Again, there’s lots to speculate about here and lots to mull over and analyze, but the final shot of Han and Chewie is really what sets the tone. We can see that time has passed but that yes, we’ll be revisiting some old friends here. The first trailer was all about the new characters but this one was about tying it to what has come before.
A third trailer – though it didn’t contain much that wasn’t in the first two – was actually debuted on the @StarWars Instagram account. The debut was notable for two reasons: 1) The small bit of new footage included showed Finn wielding what appeared to be Anakin Skywalker’s old lightsaber and 2) It was the first usage of Instagram’s new formatting, which no longer required photos and videos to be square in aspect ratio.
The next trailer debuted during Monday Night Football (a nice bit of corporate synergy with Disney-owned ABC), but not before a series of short teasers were released that got fans discussing and debating what would or wouldn’t be shown. That theatrical trailer starts off with a focus on Rey, as we see her exploring that downed Star Destroyer and replying “No one” when asked who she is. The the focus shifts to Finn, who talks about what he’s searching for as we see a Tie Fighter – presumably his – spiral down toward Jakku. Next it’s Kylo Ren as he promises to finish what “you” – presumably Vader – started. After that is the big moment in the trailer. Rey and Finn are asking Han about the stories they’ve heard about the past to which he replies “It’s true…All of it.” and goes on to explain what he means. We get shots of a massive battle taking place between X-Wings and Tie-Fighters along with lots more Stormtroopers, Kylo Ren and everyone else.
It’s remarkable – truly remarkable – how much this shows while at the same time explaining almost nothing. All we can surmise from this trailer is that Poe gets tortured, Rey and Finn are both on journeys to find themselves and their place in the universe, Ren is on a mission to seemingly complete Vader’s mission and the stories of the Jedi and their exploits have fallen into legend, which seems like the biggest turn of events. The last line about “The Force…is calling to you…Just let it in.” makes it seem this is really about a new generation taking on the mantle from the one before. Again, lots of speculation followed the release of this one as everyone began wondering what all these elements meant.
Online and Social
The full StarWars.com site is too comprehensive of the entirety of the universe to review in full. So I’m going to focus on the section that’s devoted to The Force Awakens.
That section of the site starts off with the official trailer and if you scroll down there are more videos, including TV spots, featurettes from various conventions and more.
Below that are updates from the on-domain blog that relate to Episode VII, so if you want to click-through and see how they’ve promoted the film through updates about posters, art exhibits and more this is the place to do that. That’s followed by “Image Galleries” that cover official stills, pictures from the digital trading card app and more. After that is the “Databank,” which links to more information on all the characters in the movie.
Now that may not sound like a very full-throated online effort. But those social media accounts were often used to break news like new trailers and posters and bring live coverage to fans who couldn’t be at Star Wars Celebration and other events. And it’s important to remember that while not everything published to the site over the last few years has been about The Force Awakens, all of it has been in service to the new movie. So even posts about Return of the Jedi activity books from 1984 have been about keeping the Star Wars conversation alive and keeping people thinking about the franchise, all with the goal of getting them to turn out for The Force Awakens.
Also, it should be noted that the site published a lot of material about Episode VII. They very much used the site as the hub in a hub-and-spoke strategy, putting news on the on-domain blog and then distributing it out via the various social profiles. While there were certainly social-only items as well as news that broke off-domain, most everything eventually found its way here. So if you do want to click through the blog archives you’ll find the vast majority of important news about the movie on the site. That means they’re trying to drive traffic to the site, both through social and search, where they can then get people clicking around and exploring material about the previous movies, “Rebels” and more. This is very much a “rising tide lifts all ships” situation in every sense of the term.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
TV advertising was, to engage in a bit of understatement, pervasive. Over two dozen commercials were released before the movie’s release, each of them containing some previously seen footage and usually at least a shot or two that was brand new. Some would focus on Kylo Ren and the villains, others would focus on Finn, others on Rey and so on. What they all had in common was that they got people talking about each one, analyzing each new spot for clues and all the while betraying almost nothing about the film’s story. There are simply too many to cover individually but suffice it to say they presented a consistent point of view while each having their own perspective. The TV campaign exceeded $66 million in spending, and that was a full week before release so was expected to grow significantly.
Proving that there’s nothing about Star Wars that couldn’t be turned into an event, Disney et al created Force Friday, an event in early September that was focused around the whole collection of toys and other merchandise from the movie finally going on sale. That was accompanied by a massive 18-hour livestream of the unboxing of all these various items. In the end, to the surprise of no one, BB-8, the small little ball droid that appeared briefly in the first teaser and launched a thousand GIFs, turned out to be the big winner in terms of buzz (New York Times, 9/4/15) and overall fan conversation. As more companies unveiled more toys things just got crazier as fans speculated about what X means for the movie and so on. Every figure became the subject of speculation and conversation.
Overall the #ForceFriday campaign was, at least in the immediate analysis, a success. Reports said the hashtag (which also unlocked a new custom emoji of an X-Wing) was used 68,000 times inside of 24 hours (Digiday, 9/4/15). A lot of that came from the brands that had signed on to produce Star Wars products, fans talking about those items and wanting to use that emoji, and others just looking to be part of the conversation.
Books and comics were a huge part of the marketing for The Force Awakens. That was particularly true for two things: the Star Wars: Aftermath novel and the Star Wars: Shattered Empire. Both take place in the immediate wake of the events of Return of the Jedi and focus on new or minor characters from the movie to show how the Empire didn’t fall when the second Death Star blew up but was still very a very active threat to the Rebels and the universe at large. There were a ton of other tie-in books, most focused on the young adult audience, as well.
There were a long list of promotional partners, including some that seemed a bit of an odd choice, which necessitated coverage in and of itself. And the international scope of the promotional partnerships would also become fodder for marketing industry coverage. Eventually we reached saturation and the sheer magnitude of the tie-ins started to garner some blowback and people just kind of got tired of seeing Star Wars slapped on everything that didn’t run away. And tech was such a big part of the marketing it would get coverage of its own as well.
- Duracell: A huge campaign centered around a Christmas-themed spot that put Duracell in the center as the power behind not only Christmas but Star Wars fun and games as well. The company would run this campaign across media, including buying Promoted Posts on Twitter to boost the reach of the spots. The commercial would raise some concern among fans, who thought some elements of the spot spoiled plot points for the movie, but those fears were likely misplaced.
- Subway: Offered a sweeps giving people a chance to win food, movie-themed prizes and more. The restaurant chain would also run co-branded commercials and other advertising to support that effort and offer Star Wars goodies in their kid’s meals.
- Verizon: Used this as an opportunity to promote their Droid brand of smartphones, a unique opportunity since they license the name “Droid” from Lucasfilm. Along those lines, Verizon offered a unique VR experience through Google Cardboard. The company would also run TV campaign using Star Wars to explain the advantages of its network and a huge social media and online campaign to promote their exclusive footage and more for the movie.
- General Mills: The company redesigned the boxes of many of its popular cereal brands to put those characters in Star Wars garb. Those cereals would also feature toys of various droids as prizes. Co-branded TV spots were run to promote the partnership.
- Code.org: The popular learn-to-code site unveiled a Star Wars-themed tutorial as part of the Hour of Code that allowed them to use characters from the movies to, well, learn how to code and make their own online and mobile games. This was absolutely also about showing support for STEM capabilities, particularly among young girls as Leia and Rey were the primary faces of the campaign.
- Fiat Chrysler: Ran co-branded ads that added a Star Wars element to the selling of cars. There was no direct tie-in, but the company obviously wanted to drift off the Star Wars buzz.
- Covergirl: Supported their “Star Wars Collection” line of cosmetics with paid ads online, in print and elsewhere along with heavy social media support.
- Campbell’s: Co-branded cans (though oddly with images from the Original and Prequel trilogies, not the new movie) that was supported paid TV and other ads, particularly a commercial that featured two gay dads eating with their son, something that got its fair share of press.
- Hewlett-Packard: Created a special edition laptop that was both emblazoned with lots of Star Wars “Dark Side” branding and came pre-loaded with wallpapers and more, including behind-the-scenes material from the Original Trilogy. That was accompanied by co-branded ads that showed people doing cool things with the laptop.
- Mattel and Uber decked out cars like First Order Stormtroopers roving around Manhattan.
There was a big partnership with Google which allowed people to customize their Google apps with their affiliation, giving their GMail, Google Maps and other tools either a Light or Dark Side skin. There was more rolled out over time, including customized search results and more. Google would also work with Verizon to create a unique virtual reality experience for Google Cardboard that took people into the story of the movie, specifically events on Jakku, with a mission that updated throughout the pre-release period.
Giphy was tapped as a partner late in the game, with Star Wars animations being added to the Giphy Cam app that let people put Stormtrooper helmets or other graphics on the pictures from their camera rolls. At the same time Facebook introduced a temporary profile pic changing tool that let you add one of a selection of lightsabers to that picture. And shortly thereafter Spotify introduced a tool that analyzed your music listening history and assigned a Star Wars character match.
There were so many promotional partners, and such heavy activity by those partners, that the question came up as to how much Disney even needed to do itself to sell the movie. While the studio certainly didn’t skimp on its own efforts there was a lot that was picked up by the companies it tapped as official partners as well as “unofficial” support from all the other consumer products manufacturers making toys and other items.
Since Lucasfilm is now owned by Disney is only makes sense that the new movie would be incorporated into its popular parks. (NOTE: Disney Parks is a client of Voce Communications, the agency I work for. I do not, though, have any involvement in that account nor do I have any special knowledge.) The experience included a revitalized Launch Bay, a new attraction called Season of the Force, reskinned Monorail cars and much more as Star Wars became a big part of the park experience.
Media and Publicity
(fast forward past the announcement of the movie, its casting and other pre-production news because, quite frankly, who has that kind of time)
As the movie moved into production a charitable component to the campaign was announced, a partnership with Omaze that gave people the chance to enter to win a trip to the set by donating $10 or more to a charity through Omaze. That was announced via a video hosted by Abrams from the location shoot that got everyone talking because you could see all kinds of creatures, sets and even an X-Wing in that video.
Not every move in the publicity machine pleased fans. In early 2014 it was decided by the people there that what had come to be known as the Expanded Universe was, effectively, out of continuity. So all the books, comics, games and more that had been published and released since 1983 (I’m including things like the “Droids” cartoon as well as the Timothy Zahn novels that revived the Star Wars franchise in 1991 and officially created the EU) no longer counted, leaving Lucasfilm free to ignore those characters and stories or, if they chose, cherry pick from them what they wanted and abandon the rest. The only non-film content that still “counted” were The Clone Wars and Rebels cartoons as well as the new line of books that started coming out in late 2014.
This decision honked off a lot of people who had spent the last 20+ years reading novels, collecting comics and so on since they were told in a roundabout way that all that time was wasted. This was kind of a harsh view (especially giving the quality of some of those novels) but it’s understandable since many of those stories had become almost as beloved as the original movies.
Something else that was kiboshed when Disney took over was the planned 3D theatrical rerelease of all six movies. Only Episode I was actually released before Disney obtained the rights and, presumably, decided not to proceed out of some combination of cost considerations and the desire to not taint the water by reminding people the Prequels exist.
Tech media coverage was secured when Facebook launched its 360-degree immersive video with Star Wars footage that allowed viewers to navigate their way around Jakku and elsewhere from The Force Awakens. The partnership with Facebook would continue in the form of custom stickers that could be used in comments and elsewhere. The stickers featured both classic and new characters (though nothing from the Prequels) in funny and ridiculous situations.
Six months out, the movie had a massive presence at San Diego Comic-Con 2015. The entire cast and crew turned out for a big panel that included lots of goodies for fans, including a sizzle reel that showed off a little bit of new stuff but was primarily about behind-the-scenes footage of Abrams and the cast working around the sets and talking about how excited they were to be involved.
That was followed by a surprise event as all 6,000-plus fans who were lucky enough to get into Hall H for the panel were then invited and ushered out to a concert of Star Wars music from the San Diego Symphony Orchestra.
About two months out from release the publicity campaign began in earnest and wow, was it comprehensive.
The first was a wide-ranging interview with Abrams in Wired where the director talked about a number of issues, including how setting the movie 30 years after the events of the Original Trilogy allowed him to create a whole new backstory for the characters both old and new. By that he meant that there were these decades where anything could have happened and while not all of that is stated outright in the new movie there’s the “potential” for all kinds of stories to be told that take these characters in new and interesting directions.
The second was a cover story in Entertainment Weekly that came with lots of new information and details. That edition actually came with four collectible covers as Han, Finn, Rey and the pair of R2-D2 and C-3PO each had their own version. That issue included:
- An interview with Ford about what, if any, character traits he shares with Solo and makes it clear that the scoundrel is still a scoundrel.
- A behind-the-scenes photo gallery
- An interview with Fischer about where Leia – no longer referred to as “Princess” as everyone pointed out – is 30 years later and how it felt to return to a character like this so many years later
- Additional details on Starkiller Base and General Hux, played by Domhnall Gleeson. Also, details on Maz, the character played by Lupita N’yongo and on Snoke, the big bad guy played by Andy Serkis.
- A feature on Ridley and Boyega on not only their characters but also how they came to be involved in a movie like this and the pressures that come with it including sometimes stupid-level comments from “fans”
- Comments from Abrams about how, yes, Luke was missing from the trailers and poster but that’s part of the plan since it’s a question that’s best answered by watching the movie.
Empire Magazine got their own series of collectible covers for an issue that contained loads of coverage themselves
One of the major topics of discussion at all tiers of the press was the question “Where’s Luke?” He’s not in the trailers (unless that’s him putting his hand on R2, which I believe is the case), he’s not on the posters and he’s nowhere in the paid campaign or much of the publicity. Luke, in this case, is the personification of Abrams’ “Mystery Box,” a question that needs to be answered only within the movie itself. For some people Luke’s absence from the campaign was fine, for others it was an intriguing bit of unknown, for others an annoyance that led to conspiracy theories like that Kylo Ren was actually Luke. Whatever it was, this single component of the marketing provided lots for fans to discuss, speculate about and otherwise work themselves into a lather over.
While not tied specifically or exclusively to the new movie, the marketing benefited from the opening of a new traveling exhibit called “Star Wars and the Power of Costume” that brought the focus to the design of the wardrobe, armor and more from throughout the franchise.
Omaze came back into the fold, this time offering people an opportunity to enter – again by donating to charity – to win a trip to the movie’s premiere and meet the cast and crew.
The movie got some corporate synergistic love when most of the cast appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” where they talked about the film, Harrison Ford put a cap on his faux-feud with Chewbacca and more.
Some major press coverage was scored when Abrams revealed Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton,” had written new music for a cantina-type scene.
Another big feature hit in Rolling Stone that went into the editing bay at Bad Robot to check in with Abrams about two months out from the film’s release and caught up with Hamill and others from the cast to talk (again) about what it was like to return to this franchise and these characters. Time also ran its’ own big package that included more interviews with the cast, a photo shoot and more.
The women of the franchise came into focus in this story, which hits generational themes and about how important these characters are in the new movie, a marked contrast from both the OT and Prequels. Generational passing was also the theme of this and similar stories that focused on this movie being breakout moments for Ridley and Boyega, who were primed for stardom and are now about to hit the big time and become part of what might be the biggest pop culture moment of the…year?…decade?
Some journalistic eyebrows were raised when the studio held a junket for the movie before the critics and others in attendance had seen it. That meant the critics there weren’t able to fully ask about the movie itself but had to engage in more speculation and asking the cast and crew about vague and general topics. And there were lots of opportunities, including getting your picture taken with BB-8 and other droids, that were designed to appeal to the fans that live within most of these journalists. This was out of the ordinary for studios in general but was pretty much in-line with the approach for The Force Awakens as Disney/Lucasfilm did everything in their power to keep the movie itself out of reviewer’s hands until the last possible moment.
Corporate synergy would come back around with the news Mark Hamill himself would host “Star Wars: Evolution of the Lightsaber Duel,” a special on ESPN that explored the historical influences on the fighting styles of the Jedi.
With Hamill largely out of the publicity picture (part of the “Hide Luke” strategy), most of the responsibility for representing the original cast fell to Ford and Fisher. Ford for his part seemed to be having a bit of fun with the whole process, which he famously dislikes, sometimes appearing to go “full Bill Murray” in the kind of meta-fun he was having with interviews and late-night show appearances. Fisher, on the other hand, was an absolute hoot throughout the cycle, appearing to give zero fucks about being politically correct and instead having a lot of fun telling it like it is on topics from mentoring Daisy Ridley, the legacy of Leia after all these years and lots more. Between the two of them it was just a blast.
This is one of those cases where trying to determine whether or not the campaign “worked” or not is almost beside the point. By sheer force of will, the marketing has convinced people that seeing the movie is something they must be part of, lest they be left out of important conversations with their friends and family who have seen it and can’t believe that you haven’t. With Star Wars branding almost everywhere you turn, you’d really have to have intentionally taken yourself out of the pop culture and retail worlds in order to not at least be aware the movie is coming out if not convinced to go see it yourself.
So because of the campaign’s massive scale let’s break things down by category to try and derive some larger themes that run through each element:
Posters: More than any other part of the campaign, I feel like the posters have been primarily focused on tying the two generations of characters in the movie together. With character one-sheets that feature both classic and new characters and a theatrical poster that puts everyone together on equal footing, the posters want to create connective tissue. The primary message from this part of the campaign is that the movie is not only a return to some of the characters and stories we love but also a new adventure with new characters that are picking up the mantle from the earlier ones and running in a whole new, albeit still familiar, direction with it.
Trailers: For as much as there were fan-service moments like Han’s “Chewy…we’re home” line, I think the prevailing theme of the trailers is to sell the audience on the adventure. These want to sell you on the movie being a rollicking good time with stunning X-Wing/Tie Fighter battles, shots of the Falcon swooping through the sky and exciting action sequences. If there’s a focus on characters here it’s on Finn and Rey, who are obviously set up as the focal points of the movie, but even they are presented in the context of the action that surrounds them. The trailers are selling a big-screen adventure that’s full of amazing visuals.
Online: I don’t know if there’s a big theme to pull out here from an audience standpoint. From a content-marketing standpoint, though, this shows the importance of owning your content. As I said before, even on-domain posts that weren’t about the Force Awakens were still in the service of selling The Force Awakens. Each post about something else is about drawing in an audience to explore more about the Star Wars universe with the goal of making them excited for the new movie. Even outside of that the strategy of putting so many trailers, posters and other material on managed channels like Twitter and Facebook show that the people running the campaign see value in acting as their own media channel, an essential mindset for content marketing in 2015.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions: There are actually two major themes I see here: 1) Pervasiveness. With close to 30 TV spots created and promotional partners that spanned multiple demographic groups, the campaign simply wanted to hit everyone. As I said before, you’d have to be intentionally out of touch in order to miss it. Some of the promotional partners may make more sense than others, but that not only depends on your point of view but also how much of the rest of the campaign you were exposed to. 2) Interactivity. The tech partners like Giphy, Facebook and Google all wanted you to do something and get involved in the Star Wars universe to one extent or another. That’s especially true of Google and Code.org, which made The Force Awakens a hands-on experience, which gives people some sort of personal attachment to the story and property, an important aspect.
Media and Publicity: It’s hard to pull out one major theme here. “Where’s Luke?” was certainly a big part of this, as was a focus on Ford and Fisher’s return to the franchise along with Boyega and Ridley’s entrance into it. If I had to pick one pervasive idea that ran throughout the publicity component of the campaign it would be “Don’t say much of anything.” Abrams has said he’s excited so many times the word has lost all meaning. The new actors have talked about the responsibility of taking on the legacy so many times it’s almost laughable. The returning actors have said they’re thrilled to be back so many times it’s like it’s written on a teleprompter at every interview. But none of them have done much, if any, talking about The Force Awakens. That’s been part of the plan, though, as that means they’re not spilling any spoilers.
All that being said – and I can get even more granular with a lot of what’s above than I already have but then this column would be 38 Google Doc pages long – for me personally the campaign worked. When the movie was announced in 2012 my initial reaction was “Ehh…I don’t know if I have it in me to get excited over another Star Wars movie.” That has, to put it mildly, changed pretty drastically. I’m all on board for this and am anxious to see if it lives up to my expectations in a way that the Prequels, despite the fact that I do like them, never really did. I don’t expect The Force Awakens to transport me back to 1977, 1980 or 1983 and make me feel like I did when I saw the first three movies in theaters as a young child. But if it can entertain me and provide a solid Star Wars story that makes me happy to spend two hours in a theater with these characters then I’ll leave a happy fan.