Wednesday 17 January 2018

Star Wars: A Force Awakens - A Force to be reckoned with

New 'Star Wars' marketing is changing the rules on how to send a blockbuster into hyperdrive

Path to the dark side: Kylo Ren and stormtroopers in The Force Awakens.
Path to the dark side: Kylo Ren and stormtroopers in The Force Awakens.
Publicity overkill: Emilia Clarke in Terminator Genisys
Ed Power

Ed Power

You could practically hear the internet cry out in pain last week as tens of thousands of Star Wars fans went online simultaneously to book tickets for early screenings of the massively anticipated The Force Awakens movie.

The rush caused several websites to crash as cinemas in the United States were apparently caught unawares by the ferocious enthusiasm of Jedi die-hards (Irish aficionados will be relieved to discover tickets for the December 16 midnight screenings here are still widely available).

Thirty-two years since the last Star Wars film anyone cares about, devotion to the franchise is more intense than ever.

The stampede followed the release of the final trailer for what will arguably be the cinematic event of the decade. A modest two and a half minute spot, low on dialogue, but crammed with nostalgia-heavy references to George Lucas's original trilogy, the ad was reposted 1.3 million times on Facebook within an hour. At one point, it was being retweeted at the rate of 17,000 per minute. On YouTube, the trailer has been seen 50 million times.

This might at first inspection seem like merely another example of the Hollywood hype train bearing down on our wallets at full tilt. But the Stars Wars promotional campaign is in fact highly unconventional, and arguably contrary to received industry wisdom as to how to create buzz around an upcoming movie.

For one thing, with just six weeks to go, remarkably little is still known about the plot or characters. True, tiny details have seeped out - Ireland's Domhnall Gleeson is to play villainous General Hux; Han Solo and Chewbacca will reunite and whizz about the galaxy once more in the Millennium Falcon.

But the specifics of the storyline remain murky. This is a conscious strategy by director JJ Abrams, Lucasfilm and its owner, Disney. A shroud of contrived mystery hangs over the project, which its three trailers have been consciously crafted to heighten.

"The final trailer reveals, indeed, very little of the plot," says Agnieszka Sorycz, an expert in movie marketing. "We are used to teaser trailers with no plot revealed by now... but for most final trailers, we learn a little more about the story plot as well."

The thought process behind such a tactic is fascinating to unpick and perhaps has parallels with the other big release of the season, the new James Bond romp, Spectre.

Again, beyond the contractual obligation to tussle with evil henchman and bed a minimum of three Bond girls, the specifics of Spectre's dramatic arc were zealously guarded right up to release this week (unusually, the film came out on a Monday - apparently to ensure the premiere dovetailed with the schedules of the British royals in attendance).

In interviews promoting Spectre, cast members have been super cagey - having apparently been told that any 'spoiling' will be looked upon dimly by the producers.

"It's not fun," said actor Dave Bautista (hulking heavy 'Mr Hinx'). "I don't like dancing around answers. But these days, when you say one thing, it just spreads across the internet and [the fans] aren't as excited when they go and see it."

In the case of both Star Wars and Bond, the studios are engaged in the tricky act of managing anticipation. The franchises attract so much attention that over-exposure is a clear and present danger. You have to draw the punters in without making people feel they have been hectored with a loud hailer.

Disney has admitted as much, with chief executive Robert Iger telling investors that, far from representing an open goal, selling Star Wars is a complicated endeavour.

"We want to be careful that the demand does not create too much in the marketplace too soon," he said in a conference call. "Everything we have done to date has been extremely deliberate, and we have a carefully constructed plan going forward in terms of what we roll out in the marketplace."

"While it may seems that Star Wars marketers have the easiest job in the world I don't think that is necessary the case," says Sorycz. "There is an entire spectrum of audience needs that need to be integrated within the campaign. The audience vary from 18 to 50 - a very wide target group to work with."

The reality is that endeavours on the scale of The Force Awakens (budget $200m) and Spectre (budget $300m) truly cannot afford to fail. The cost of blockbusters - including marketing - is so massive that leaving things to chance isn't an option. Thus it would be foolhardy to assume The Force Awakens will be a smash and simply flood the airwaves with workaday ads.

"What's happened is that the middle ground of cinema, the middle range of budgets from $6m to $20m, has pretty much evaporated," John Crowley, director of Brooklyn, commented recently. "You can get money for films that are under $4m or studio movies for over $100m."

Thus studios are literally gambling the bank on their major franchises pulling in big numbers. But persuading people to leave their couches and schlep all the way to their local cinema is no easy ask. In a world of infinite entertainment choice, there is no obvious reason why anyone should wish to pay e12 to sit in a darkened room at their local shopping centre for two hours. You have to give them a reason for going.

"They [Lucasfilm] are desperate to ensure the longevity of the franchise, and make sure the quality is kept up," Screen International news editor Michael Rosser told The Guardian. "They are also trying to bring people into the theatres at a time when lots are staying home for entertainment."

As the parsecs tick away and the release of The Force Awakens approaches, Lucasfilm will pray it has not repeated the mistakes of last summer's Terminator: Genisys. As with Star Wars, here was a beloved IP returning after a spell in the wilderness and several duff excursions.

The difference is that Terminator tried to win fans over with an overwhelming publicity deluge. The entire plot of the movie was more or less given away - including the major twist that a previously good character had turned evil. You had a sense of having experienced the film without venturing near a cinema, and Genisys duly proved a flop outside of China.

"I go on the internet and read about other movies so I understand the desire for more information but I think JJ is right," Domhnall Gleeson told me when I brought up the subject of Star Wars with him earlier this year. "You want everyone to go in and not know all the secrets. You want people to go to Star Wars and not have too many expectations or too many thoughts about what it is and rather let the film happen to them."

"It's rare that we get these moments," added Gwendoline Christie, who plays Stormtrooper Captain Phasma in The Force Awakens.

"Now in our society we see everything all the time. JJ [Abrams is] saying, 'Let us surprise you. Let us all have a wonderful Christmas.' There's something blissfully childlike about it."

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