Avengers: Infinity War Shows How To Do It Right
As already alluded to, the spoiler-averse approach to marketing is prevalent across cinema, even though it may not necessarily be the optimum way to sell or consume a movie. Studies have shown that spoilers tend to enhance a viewing experience due to how they frame a story ahead of time, and in that vein, most successful cases of spoiler-phobic marketing are ones that still present a well-rounded sense of the movie. Indeed, for all the secrecy, bar the big mysteries Lucasfilm didn't hide much of Star Wars: The Force Awakens; its familiar plot and focus on evoking classic Star Wars tone is up front.
For a perfect example, you need only look to the MCU. This is a franchise that is notorious for secrecy - jokes about actors not being able to say anything has been interview fodder since Avengers: Age of Ultron (as has the threat of Mark Ruffalo accidentally revealing something) - yet has marketing that typically shows all but one big twist and fun Easter eggs (see: the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, Hydra infiltrating S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Ego being the villain Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the Vulture being Liz's father in Spider-Man: Homecoming and many more).
You get this best with Avengers: Infinity War. Marvel locked up the ending, having Thanos' victory and the snap victims be on an entirely need-to-know basis, and was likewise quiet about anything involving the Soul Stone (Red Skull's return or Gamora's death), yet over the course of several trailers alluded to pretty much everything else: the character team-ups, Thor's mission, the Battles in Wakanda and Titan, the mix of apocalyptic and comedy. A lot was still held back, of course, but a considerably high amount of the story was out there beforehand; there was no doubt that the movie being sold was the movie delivered. The trailers showed the right things, prepared audiences to not expect a Civil War reunion between Captain America and Iron Man, and built up Thanos in such a way that even with the unexpected cliffhanger (the marketing downplayed the previous "Part 1" announcement) felt fitting. It displayed all the awareness of the finished product that The Last Jedi's trailers didn't.
Star Wars Doesn't Need To Be A Mystery Box
All of this discussion, ultimately, comes to rest on one simple fact: Star Wars is being treated as a mystery box. This is the J.J. Abrams way, building up excitement for a movie with teases of a promise, letting the hunger to find the answer to some grand mystery be the key sell. It's the monster in Cloverfield, it's the meaning of the island in Lost, it's the monster (again) in Super 8, and it's what exactly Star Wars: The Force Awakens is.
Fundamentally, the mystery box is not a good filmmaking device. It's a marketing trick alone and only serves to direct audiences into watching a product they may not have otherwise. That's why the mystery box aspect of a film's marketing is rarely the reason it succeeds artistically: while the viral marketing worked with Cloverfield, that movie really succeeds off Matt Reeves direction; Lost didn't have answers to its questions but instead found life in its characters; Super 8's strength was nostalgia, not its monster; and The Force Awakens was just Star Wars 7 after all. You can see how broken the mechanic can be with The Cloverfield Paradox, which used classic mystery box techniques of a shock release method and hamfisted retcon to hide the fact it was just a very bad movie.
Now, Star Wars has always had mystery. The Darth Vader twist in The Empire Strikes Back was known only by Lucas, producer Gary Kurtz, director Irvin Kerschner, Mark Hamill and James Earl Jones, while the production planted fake spoilers in magazines to throw fans off the scent. But this was a slight consideration at the time. By the time of the prequels, Lucas was very open, with a constant stream of set videos shared on the early internet, Qui-Gon's death spoiled by The Phantom Menace soundtrack, and Revenge of the Sith marketed heavily on the presence of Darth Vader. They were movies with a known outcome, sure, and had obvious twists (Padme's secret, that Count Dooku was a Sith and the identity of Darth Sidious), but it was still noticeably transparent.
That every Star Wars movie is produced under immense secrecy is really born from the Disney era, and specifically Abrams. And it needn't be; The Force Awakens got away with it thanks to how well the movie replicated the feel of Star Wars, but that all its mystery really amounted to one character being a new-generation Skywalker, the death of a legacy hero everybody expected to bite it already, and a plot that mirrored A New Hope is certainly perplexing. In truth, the use of the mystery box for the film's marketing had a very different purpose to narrative; it was bringing Star Wars back under a cloud of cynicism following the prequels and needed a longer lead-in, more "feel" focused push, and to build up hype for more - something for which teasing ambiguity helps.
With Star Wars: The Last Jedi, though, the mystery box just means that some of its most interesting aspects are held back for far too long. The audience for Disney Star Wars was proven by The Force Awakens and Rogue One, so it was more a case of raising awareness and getting everybody ready for the release than actually selling something. The mistake was assuming that people needed to be dragged into the cinema once again.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019