The Saber is Passed
It began on the eve of Halloween, some three years ago. The press releases began to drop like bombs on the internet, sending shock waves out in all directions. The Disney corporation had worked out a deal to acquire Lucasfilm and all of its properties for the princely sum of $4 billion and change. The ramifications of the deal became almost immediately clear. Before the ink had even dried on the contracts, the announcement came: plans were underway to produce a sequel trilogy to the original Star Wars films. An idea long ago abandoned, thought to be only the stuff of fanboy wet dreams, was about to become reality. The world would soon return to a galaxy far, far away.
The initial news was met with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. A lackluster prequel trilogy tore the fanbase in half, one side fiercely defensive and the other either indifferent or angry. The general public, who decades ago had been swept along by the fervor around the original trilogy, had long since moved on and generally regarded Star Wars as that thing that used to be a thing way back before we had the internet and cellphones. Fans of the Expanded Universe of Star Wars fiction were outraged at Lucasfilm’s announcement that these stories were now considered “legends,” and would not factor into the timeline for the canonical films, and many were horrified at the prospect of a “Disney-fied” galaxy.
These fears would soon prove unwarranted. The formation of a Lucasfilm Story Group was revealed, headed by Leland Chee, Pablo Hidalgo, and Kiri Hart. The Story Group would be responsible for tying together every loose thread in the canonical galaxy, making sure that each piece fit with the next, and avoiding the sprawling mess of the EU. Kathleen Kennedy, who had been a mainstay in the Lucasfilm empire since the 80’s, would take the helm at the personal request of George Lucas himself. As one of her first public acts as President, Kennedy announced the choice for the director of Episode VII: the man who had resuscitated the Star Trek film franchise, J.J. Abrams.
Casting began soon after, and the rumors started to surface. There were whispers that Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill would all return to reprise their roles from the original trilogy. The casting rumors slowly began to be confirmed, new names were added to the mix, and finally, in April 2014, the cast was officially announced, and the now-iconic table read photo was released. It was almost too good to be true, and at the same time, a frightening concept. Were we prepared to see our heroes aged, our childhood memories tarnished again somehow by something we might not really want to see? In a few months, the world would answer that question resoundingly.
It had begun with reports of a trailer coming in select theaters on Black Friday. Questions abounded. Where could we see it? Which films would it screen before? Was there a special showing? Why isn’t it at all theaters? Could this possibly be the same company that announced the title of the new film via social media? Whether they had intended it all along or made a sudden course correction, Lucasfilm swiftly announced that the teaser trailer for The Force Awakens would drop some time on the day after Thanksgiving, on the internet, for all to see.
Word began to spread in the traditional media, and on social media, and the office break room. “New Star Wars trailer on Friday!” Timed at the cusp of the most commercial season in the world, the initial 88-second teaser for The Force Awakens was marketing gold. Families gathered around television sets to watch, kids and adults alike huddled over their phones at the mall or in their bedrooms. Millions of eyes witnessed the first images of the new Star Wars adventure, and were amazed by what they saw.
“There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?” growled a dark voice offscreen as a familiar sandy landscape came into view, lingered tantalizingly, and then…BAM! The journey had begun with the face that launched a hashtag, and the world was swept in. Flashes of new images appeared, then disappeared into blackness for a moment, as if to allow us to process briefly what we had just seen. Stormtrooper without his helmet, scared…weird, charming soccer ball version of Artoo…new stormtroopers with new blasters on some kind of drop ship…young girl in desert rags, on some bizarre fudgsicle/landspeeder hybrid…X-wing pilot at the controls, and OMG LOOK AT THAT SHOT…dark, hooded figure in the woods with a lightsaber OOOMMGGG WHAAAAT IS THAT?!?……….a blast of trumpets and jet fuel and THE MILLENNIUM FALCON!!!1!
It was an expertly constructed and paced glimpse into the new film, building from confusion and questioning into thrilling nostalgia and amazing new character reveals, without spoiling any details or plot devices. The world had been welcomed back into the galaxy, and in a couple of weeks, would learn the names of the new characters via digital versions of vintage Topps trading cards—BB-8, Kylo Ren, Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron—which would become household words before the film would even be released.
Chewie, We’re Home
A few months later, Star Wars fans from around the globe would convene in California for Celebration Anaheim, the tenth Star Wars Celebration event, but the first since 2005 to coincide with the release year of a new film. The opening day’s first panel featured Abrams and Kennedy, as well as the new trio of young actors, and most of the original cast. The crowd was giddy with excitement over the expected new footage from the film, but was unprepared to have the show nearly stolen by the live appearance of BB-8, the lovable new astromech droid whose very existence seemed to defy physics itself. Within hours, the video of his appearance would set the internet abuzz with speculation over just how this little guy worked.
Even the awe and wonder at BB-8, however, would soon pale in comparison to the beautiful and moving second teaser trailer for The Force Awakens, as nearly perfect a piece of promotional material as is ever likely to exist.
It opened with the plaintive Force theme as the camera panned across a wind-swept desert, following Rey’s speeder moving swiftly in the distance like a vista from a John Ford western. Slowly, what looked like a mountain range came into view, and was revealed in fact to be a crashed Imperial Star Destroyer, a remnant of the forgotten war. This shot alone captured and conveyed the entire premise of the new trilogy. It was a tableau of both the familiar and the unfamiliar, the haunting music of our memories playing on the wind as right in front of us, evidence that life goes on, and had for the galaxy that we left long ago.
The voice of Luke Skywalker, talking to his sister Leia on Endor thirty years prior, narrated the past as images of the present began to appear. “The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. My sister has it.” And then, enigmatically, a quote out of order, maybe indicating Luke was speaking to the audience directly, “You have that power, too.” Then came a flood of images that gave us a sense of the new state of things in the galaxy, while the triumphant strains of “Yoda & The Force” built to a crescendo, before it crashed with a blast into silence and darkness. A beat, and then a familiar gruff voice “Chewie…” The raucous crowd at Anaheim fell silent for a moment, then saw the faces of two old friends light up the screen as Han Solo uttered the rallying cry for the fandom. “We’re home.”
The reactions ranged from uncontrollable weeping to raucous laughter. We were indeed home. Our old friends had returned, and for the first time in years, Star Wars fans exhaled in relief. Maybe, just maybe, our fears were completely misplaced. This was the story we had been waiting to hear for almost two generations.
Everything’s Changed, but Nothing’s Changed
At San Diego Comic Con, a similar panel convened to reveal more new surprises for the fans. This time, more cast members were revealed, and the crowd was treated to the first Star Wars-related fan convention appearance of Harrison Ford in decades. The famously recalcitrant and grumpy old actor appeared moved by the reaction of the fans, and assured us all that he had returned because of the quality of the project. “It should have felt ridiculous,” he said of returning so many years later to the role that launched his career. “But I can tell you that it felt great.”
At the panel, a short behind-the-scenes reel of footage was played, and subsequently released online, in which the filmmakers were clearly seen to be both reverent of the past, and committed to pushing the technology and story forward, a sentiment encapsulated perfectly in the words of Mark Hamill: “You’ve been here before, but you don’t know this story. I mean everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed. That’s the way you want it to be, really.”
As the presentation ended, Abrams told an excited crowd that they had a surprise in store, and that they were all invited to come walk with the cast to the waterfront, where the San Diego Symphony Orchestra would serenade them with music from the classic films. And as the sun set over the bay, and all in attendance waved their free lightsabers in the air, a concert that would never be forgotten wrapped up with a fireworks show and the strains of John Williams echoing into the night sky.
The world had never seen anything like what Lucasfilm unveiled next. A global merchandising event centered around one film would be live streamed from several countries, as excited fans opened their new Star Wars toys for the first time, all from a film that would not be released for another four months. It was like Christmas morning in September, calling back memories from many people’s own childhoods, as box after box opened to reveal action figures, Lego sets, and a little remote-controlled droid who would become the first must-have toy of the season: Sphero BB-8.
It was, once again, a seamless transition from the old to the new, welcoming every generation of fans aboard at once and propelling interest to new heights. With each passing week, however, the anticipation built for the full trailer. Speculation began about the date of its release. Some said September, others November. Every day that passed was like the minutes ticking off the clock on the last day of school, slowly and excruciatingly. It began to feel like it would never happen. And then…
Just Let It In
On Sunday, October 18, 2015, Lucasfilm revealed the official one sheet poster for The Force Awakens and announced the full trailer for the film would air the next night during halftime on Monday Night Football. They teased it throughout the day with short bursts of Instagram-length video and it was revealed that tickets would go on sale after the premiere. The truth, however, was that they would actually go on sale quietly hours before, with nary an announcement. Those fans who had anticipated demand were the first to get in, but by the time the trailer had aired, demand was so great that requests for tickets were met with error messages and downed websites.
A more character-centered trailer greeted viewers this time, as the minimal opening score drew us into the lives and stories of the three leads: Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren. Rey’s voice-over narration at one point alluded to a forgotten past. “There were stories about what happened.” To which Han Solo replied, “It’s true. All of it. The dark side, the Jedi. They’re real.” As the trailer reached its emotional climax, Lupita Nyong’o’s character Maz Kanata reassuringly told us “The Force. It’s calling to you. Just let it in.”
This message had remained consistent throughout the marketing push, from the acquisition, to the casting, to the trailers all; We are going forward, but we will never forget where we began. It’s an inclusive message, and it has been told subtly and masterfully. It gives the jaded hope, and the hopeful excitement. By all accounts, the marketing of The Force Awakens has been an absolutely astounding success. Public anticipation is at a fever pitch, toys have flown—and continue to fly—off the shelves, and there is no sign that interest will abate any time soon. With six Star Wars films slated for release in the next five years, we are in an unprecedented time in film history. With this kind of marketing presence, whether we like it or not, The Force will be with us for years to come.
follow Michael on twitter @Goodie1969