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Over the past four decades, the Star Wars film series has been an overwhelming success both critically and financially – pulling in 10 Academy Awards and raking in over $10 billion. Although it hasn’t all been a smooth hyperdrive – many bemoaned Episode I and II’s comic depiction of animated character Jar Jar Binks – the saga has generated legions of die-hard fans and buckets of box-office dollars.
So why has this epic space opera resonated with audiences for so many light years? Simon Wilmot, Head of Film and Television at Deakin University, names many reasons: the films’ cutting-edge special effects, unique story-verse and cinema-defining sound systems. He also explains that amid the socio-political disillusionment of the 70s and 80s, the film storyline of a classic hero overcoming a monster structure had incredible appeal.
But Wilmot says the key reason Star Wars has survived for so long is its shrewd marketing. Part of George Lucas’ genius was his multimedia platform vision, which included merchandising. He invented a new way of approaching cinema marketing. A child in the 1970s didn’t just see the film, they bought the toys and the games. Even if they were too young to understand the complex universe of the films, they connected to the toys. ‘When children grew up and became parents, they introduced their children to the films, the toys, the games. It became really effective in introducing a new generation,’ he explains.
'When children grew up and became parents, they introduced their children to the films, the toys, the games. It became really effective in introducing a new generation.'
School of Communication and Creative Arts, Deakin University
And it happened again. In 2015, another generation was introduced to Star Wars with the release of the highly anticipated film Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But this time, we saw much of the film’s marketing come through digital channels. Facebook gave users the opportunity to apply a lightsaber filter to their profile, while Google worked with Disney and Lucasfilm to turn fans’ phones into lightsabers.
This trend continued through to the end of the third trilogy in 2019. For the final instalment Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, we saw Samsung launch a Star Wars-themed Galaxy Note 10 Plus and United Airlines transform one of its 737-800 planes into a Star Wars-themed adventure.
Although there are many reasons Star Wars has endured, its marketing creates a sense of familiarity that keeps us coming back and sharing the films with our children. Wilmot says, ‘When we present an audience with a film that they don’t know anything about, it’s very difficult to get them to see it. The reason studios put so much money into franchises is because it’s a more reliable return. They reassure the audience by giving them something familiar. That’s what marketing does – the more a film is familiar, the more people will go to see it.’
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