WARNING: This post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens won’t just go down as one of the year’s best films; the marketing campaign Lucasfilm put together is arguably one of the finest in recent memory. The studio went all out to raise awareness for the saga’s latest installment, and the months leading up to the movie’s release was a full blitzkrieg of television spots, trailers, and of course, copious amounts of licensed merchandise – ranging from Hasbro toys to Kraft macaroni and cheese.
Someone would have had to be living off the grid to not know that a new Star Wars movie was coming out in 2015. But the omnipresence of Force Awakens materials wasn’t what made the advertising so special. As evidenced by emotional reactions to the film’s theatrical previews, something about the marketing struck a chord with the fan base and even the movie’s cast. It’s true that the galaxy far, far away means so much for many film fans, but not every blockbuster sports trailers that can make people tear up. So what are the lessons Hollywood can learn from the Force Awakens advertising strategy when promoting other franchises?
NOTE: For the purposes of this post, we are focusing mainly on trailers. Merchandising plays a huge role in Star Wars, but that isn’t replicable with every major franchise. Each film does, however, have previews.
Respect the Core Fan Base
After the infamous Star Wars prequel trilogy left many fans numb to the idea of further adventures in the universe, Lucasfilm needed to reassure moviegoers that the sequels would be worthwhile investments. Throughout the pre-release phase, there was heavy emphasis placed on director J.J. Abrams’ insistence on using practical effects and real locations as often as possible. The original films, released from 1977-1983, were known for their “lived-in” aesthetic, and much of the action was captured in-camera (and not added in via computer graphics). From the get-go, fans knew that the new movies would at least look like the spiritual successors to the classic trilogy, and that things would be grounded in some capacity.
That said, fans didn’t well up because they saw John Boyega walking through a real-life desert as opposed to being in front of a green screen. It was easy to tell that The Force Awakens had the visuals of a Star Wars movie down pat, but the franchise is a lot more than that. The biggest question in the lead-up to Episode VII was if it was going to feel like a Star Wars movie, in terms of the emotion and character dynamics that made the first trilogy a beloved touchstone for generations of viewers. There are certain things fans come to expect when they sit down for a Star Wars film, and it was important that The Force Awakens featured most (if not all) of them.
For many fans, the first real moment of “this is Star Wars” came during the second teaser trailer that was shown at Star Wars Celebration. The nostalgia of hearing John Williams’ legendary musical cues tugged at the heartstrings, playing over shots of fast-paced action and intimidating villainy that have become series trademarks. And of course, Han Solo was back on board the Millennium Falcon, telling his trusted pal Chewbacca, “Chewie, we’re home.” It wasn’t just the characters that were home; the line could be applied to the franchise as a whole. If there was anyone doubting that The Force Awakens could be a return to form, this was the turning point.
The second teaser set the template for all future previews. Combining the old with the new, Lucasfilm made sure audiences knew this would be a classic space opera with a modern twist, representing an evolution for the series that still honored its roots. A recurring statement that many expressed with each international trailer and TV spot was “this feels like Star Wars.” For longtime fans, that’s what made the impending arrival of The Force Awakens a celebration. The saga wasn’t just coming back – it looked and felt like the films many grew up with, giving them something tangible to place their hopes in.
Disney did have to sell The Force Awakens to a new audience, but they understood that if Star Wars was to get back in the good graces of the film community, the new movie would have to appeal to the legions of pre-existing fans that made the franchise the juggernaut that it is. In today’s day and age of rebooting known commodities, updating properties is a big part of their continued success. But the studios marketing them still need to respect their traditions and honor the core fan base that will set the stage for the kind of buzz a project receives.
Take, for example, Star Trek Beyond. The film will premiere in theaters in 2016, as a means of celebrating Star Trek‘s 50th anniversary. Earlier this month, Paramount unveiled the teaser trailer for Beyond, and it inspired vitriol from the Trekkies. The use of the classic Beastie Boys song “Sabotage” and emphasis on high octane action seemed to go against the usual tropes Star Trek was built on. For many fans, the preview felt more like a generic sci-fi flick instead of a true Star Trek film. Given the divided opinions 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness generated, the studio may have been better to play it safe and use one of the more traditional cuts director Justin Lin has mentioned.
Even the film’s co-writer Simon Pegg was not a fan of the Beyond teaser, since he says there is more to the film than what was shown. However, Beyond is on very shaky ground. Pegg was told to rework Roberto Orci’s initial script because it was “too Star Trek-y” and Paramount reportedly wanted the film to be more like Marvel’s megahit Guardians of the Galaxy. Beyond isn’t in danger of becoming a massive box office flop, but Paramount isn’t exactly instilling warm and fuzzy feelings in Star Trek fans either. In the early going, they seem to be concerned with stripping Star Trek of its essence to make it appeal to a wide audience, instead of using that essence to show why it can appeal to a wide audience. The Force Awakens showed it’s possible to pull off the latter, and now Paramount needs to work overtime to win over the Star Trek fans again.
Keep Your Secrets
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Force Awakens advertising was that it marked a rare instance in modern Hollywood where the previews did not spoil crucial plot information. Even as Disney put out a new TV commercial every other day, each look at the film led to fervent speculation and theorizing as opposed to a clear spelling out of the film’s events. The third domestic trailer was a great example of this, as it set up the main characters and their motivations without giving too much away. There was still much to learn about Star Wars 7 when viewers finally got a chance to see it, including what exactly the narrative of the film is.
Watching a movie for the first time can be a fun experience, since audiences are meant to live vicariously through the characters and go on the journey with them (no matter the genre). If moviegoers know of a big twist or how things play out in advance, that emotional connection is lost and viewers are taken out of a film – just waiting for that sequence that was shown in the trailers. A solid marketing campaign should set up the basic conflict and then let viewers enjoy the ride, especially when it’s for something guaranteed to sell a lot of tickets.
Lucasfilm was so brilliant in their advertising that they went so far as to use red herrings. Finn was featured prominently in posters and previews wielding Luke Skywalker’s original lightsaber, but he uses it only briefly in the film. Rey is meant to have the lightsaber, but showing her fighting Kylo Ren before the movie’s premiere would have robbed moviegoers of an awe-inspiring moment that’s vital to Rey’s character arc. Abrams explained that Luke Skywalker was purposely absent from all marketing materials, and that’s because searching for Luke is the entire crux of the movie. If the one scene Mark Hamill was in was highlighted in a trailer or TV spot, audiences would just be sitting waiting for that moment instead of getting the earned payoff that the film delivers.
That’s not to say every single film should go to extreme lengths to preserve plot details (the Force Awakens tie-in novel was delayed so it didn’t coincide with the movie’s debut), but holding things back is always recommended. A couple of weeks before Star Wars 7 came out, Warner Bros. released a new trailer for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Like most things associated with Zack Snyder’s upcoming film, the preview was polarizing. Some felt that it revealed too much, particularly the appearance by what looked like Doomsday at the end. Previous marketing materials (including the well-received San Diego Comic-Con trailer) played up Batman and Superman’s physical and philosophical battle of wills, leaving Lex Luthor’s diabolical plan in the shadows.
Obviously, given the subtitle Dawn of Justice, many moviegoers fully expected Batman V Superman to end with the Man of Steel and Caped Crusader setting aside their differences and forming the Justice League. From a certain point of view, the Doomsday bit isn’t truly a spoiler, but Warner Bros. might have benefited from holding back. Those who saw The Force Awakens had an inkling that Finn or Rey would end up becoming the next Jedi apprentice (after all, it’s the first in a trilogy), but Lucasfilm never showed us Rey holding out the lightsaber to Luke in a trailer. Viewers got to make the discoveries with Rey instead of watching Rey learn what they already knew. That simply adds a layer to the film and makes audiences more invested in what is happening on-screen.
Since Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are essentially dual protagonists in Batman v Superman, it arguably would have been better to save Doomsday for the film, so viewers can be in the heroes’ shoes during the movie instead of waiting for the showdown. The film’s synopsis basically confirmed that there was a greater evil at play, but the trailers had been holding off showing what that was until now. Before the third trailer, it could have been anything, and it would have been fun for that to be a surprise saved for the movie itself (even if Doomsday “isn’t just the third act”). Abrams gets some flack for his mystery box style, but there’s no denying it gives his projects another element.
In all honesty, this is a tricky balance that studios need to find. Many fans watch trailers for tentpole films expecting to see clips of action set pieces that display the film’s sense of spectacle, and the most jaw-dropping moments typically come towards the end. Even The Force Awakens teased the Finn vs. Kylo Ren third act lightsaber duel in the trailers. Savvy viewers were able to piece together a semblance of a structure (Jakku – Takodana – Starkiller base) just from all the footage that was released. However, all the little details were kept under wraps. That was the biggest difference between Star Wars 7 and other blockbusters. None of the trailers spelled anything out; they allowed viewers go in pretty much clean.
Franchises have become the backbone of the film industry, with new installments in several big name properties coming out each year. Fans are always excited to see their favorite characters return to the big screen, and basing a movie on something recognizable is an easy way to generate mass revenue. Simply put, people are always going to come out in droves for a Batman or Star Trek movie because the fan bases for those creations are so widespread. In those cases, all the studio really needs to do is announce the title of the film to sell moviegoers.
Not every movie has that luxury. In an instance where executives are banking on an original idea or an awards contender, they may have to peel a couple of layers back and reveal some basic plot details so casual audiences know why they should care. But when audiences see Bruce Wayne donning a cape and cowl, or the Millennium Falcon flying through the sky, they care instantly because it’s something recognizable that many people love. Marketing the essence of the film becomes a greater priority than the film itself.
That’s what this boils down to. We live in a world where there’s a major blockbuster hitting theaters every other week, and studios are so confident in their ability to succeed that they schedule movies years in advance. If they’re that sure the projects will break the bank, they shouldn’t feel the need to unnecessarily spoil plot twists or alter the tone of an established brand to give it appeal. In many ways, Star Wars is one of a kind, but its blockbuster brethren could learn a thing or two from it.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now playing in theaters, and will be followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode VIII on May 26th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode IX is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.