What Lucasfilm Should Have Done With The Last Jedi
So, with the problems - both in practice and ethos - laid out, how should Lucasfilm have approached Star Wars: The Last Jedi's marketing? Put simply, lead into the movie more. Admit outright it's a full subversion, reveal some of the more contentious elements, and allow fans to get used to it. All of this would lead to the predictable debates, but it would happen before the movie released, not after. History has taught us that Star Wars fans will always resist change, but with enough reinforcement will accept it.
Give the first act of each arc. Instead of teasing Luke being disenfranchised with the Jedi, make abundantly clear he's cut off from the Force and that Kylo Ren is the cause (this would also give Mark Hamill more to talk about, playing down his "fundamental disagreement" with Rian Johnson). This wouldn't mean showing the lightsaber throw - that's a perfect surprise for theaters - but priming audiences for the character would make it land with the intended effect. The same ethos goes for Rose and Canto Bight - they were mostly absent from the mainstream marketing, making them a jolt - or the humor - the trailers woefully missold the movie's tone - or Reylo.
What should be hidden is the death of Snoke and Luke, Rey's parents, Leia in space and the Holdo maneuver (Yoda could be held back but it doesn't really matter). However, none of these should be straight-up hidden as they were: establish Snoke's role (while downplaying an identity reveal) making it surprising when Rey is before him early; tease Luke and Kylo's showdown; reveal Kylo knows Rey's parents' true identity; show Leia injured and Holdo's conflict with Poe. The payoffs of these subplots would obviously land best as part of the movie, but removing the setup from the trailers puts the audience as a disadvantage for engaging with such a packed movie.
How Lucasfilm Can Fix This For Star Wars 9
That exact approach is what Lucasfilm should follow through with on Star Wars 9. Is it "correcting" The Last Jedi? Is it a remake of Return of the Jedi? Is it a time travel jaunt through the past films? Whatever Star Wars 9 is, it should be outlined clearly and carefully during the advertising campaign. That needn't mean everything is dumped in the first teaser or that the majority of surprises aren't held back, but a more honest presentation of the film will both prep people for what Abrams has done and ideally undo some of the damage done so far.
The irony of the backlash stoked by The Last Jedi's marketing is that Star Wars 9 is now perceived as needing to "win back" a portion of its audience only just brought back on board by The Force Awakens. This means there will be a supposed advantage to returning to the mystery box and teasing reveals and secrets, but that really only propagates the cycle. To truly move on from the mistakes of the past, the Star Wars marketing machine needs to actually understand The Last Jedi learn from its failures.
They are, to a point, already doing this. The official production announcement included confirmation that Episode IX is (for now) the end of the Skywalker Saga, that Mark Hamill will return and unused footage of Carrie Fisher will finish Leia's story. All three of these could easily have been kept a secret up to release (see Yoda in The Last Jedi) but that they're out there now means audiences won't be startled to distraction by Force Ghost Luke and a resurrected Fisher. But it shouldn't stop here. Is there a new Death Star? Understandable, but don't hide it. Is Matt Smith just a First Order general? Then say that, don't let speculation he's Rey's father override everything else.
Star Wars fandom is complex, formed of multiple generations of audiences who get entirely different things from the saga and all believe their view of the multimedia empire to be the correct one. That's one of the most amazing things about the series, but also makes keeping it going a challenge. Disney has (mostly) hit the right note in pleasing as many people as earnestly possible, they just need to get more open about what their Star Wars plans are. And it all starts with those trailers.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019