Reading last week that the Royal Mail was to issue special ‘Star Wars’ stamps didn’t surprise me at all. In fact I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if , in the publicity towards the release of Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens on December 17th , the Church of England were to issue Christmas cards with shepherds holding light sabers instead of crooks.
Yes, the greatest marketing campaign around movie –tie in toys since the last one (that would be Minions) is upon us. The 4th of September saw stores the world over open through the night to usher in ‘Force Friday’ where, we were told by the Star Wars Official Website, we could begin to buy a wide-range of products — from toys and collectibles, to books and comics, ebooks and apps, to apparel and lifestyle accessories — all available at mass retailers worldwide. It’s an incredible undertaking across a variety of media platforms which is testament to the enduring appeal of the brand originally launched in 1977.
Behind it all is Disney, which bought Lucasfilm, the company responsible for the original Star Wars films, from its chairman and founder George Lucas for $4.05bn (£2.5bn) in 2012. The plan is to deliver a new feature film every few years and to develop, the in the words of Disney themselves,
extensive opportunities…. to deliver the content across a diverse portfolio of businesses including movies, television, consumer products, games and theme parks.
The Walt Disney Company is the acknowledged pioneer and master of licensing merchandise and as Janet Wasko (amongst others) has pointed out, the worldwide proliferation of Disney merchandise is perhaps the key feature of its vast empire. Throughout its history it has licensed its characters to manufacturers in exchange for initial fees and sales percentages thereafter – Wasko relates that almost as soon as Mickey Mouse made his debut in Steamboat Willie, Mickey’s image begin to gain a foothold in US culture. During the 1930’s the company began to ‘flood the market’ with products and the face of the mouse appeared on, ‘everything from soap to ice cream cones to Carter diamond bracelets for $1,250’.
This business model, adapted as time went by to suit advances in media development, has yielded phenomenal financial rewards. In 2014 Variety magazine reported that Disney brands generated a record $40.9 billion from licensed merchandise in 2013. Having titles from Disney, Marvel, Pixar and Lucasfilm “certainly makes our job easier,” said Josh Silverman, executive VP, global licensing for Disney Consumer Products. “It gives us a rich portfolio of stories and characters and we spend a lot of time thinking of how to maximize these at retail.”
Disney has certainly maximised the potential of the ‘Star Wars’ brand and the $4 billion dollars for Lucasfilm was money well spent on a proven merchandising winner. It could be argued that anyone (well, any boy) who grew up in the 70’s or 80’s knows the figures of Chewbacca, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader et al. As David Barnett wrote in the Independent, not only did the series of films capture the imagination, but the desire to own affiliated memorabilia was unparalleled. He states that between 1977 and 1978, Star Wars toys brought in $100m (£73m) in revenue. By last year, the total was nearer $12bn. And ‘Star Wars’ has a cross generational appeal. How many parents this Christmas will shop for themselves as well as their children? Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm said
“Star Wars toys have inspired multiple generations to relive the experience of the movies and to create new adventures all their own. These spectacular Star Wars: The Force Awakens products will continue that tradition.”
This is an important point. Rekindling the greatest memories of one’s own childhood whilst simultaneously believing you are contributing to the pleasure of your own children is a parental norm. Disney, through all its products, has noted the commercial value of shared experience. In this age where technology is sometimes perceived to have created a cultural distance between the generations, events like the release of ‘The Force Awakens’ are marketed by Disney as something which can draw the family together again.
The fact that the marketing around ‘The Force Awakens’ has begun some three months before the release of the film itself indicates Disney’s belief in the appetite for merchandise. The amounts of money invested in all sorts of different products is staggering. Marketing Magazine reports that Hasbro, the toy and board game giant, has paid $225m for the rights to produce toys whilst Electronic Arts (EA) has the rights to produce Star Wars games and is planning multiple titles across consoles, PC’s and mobiles. You may have seen Darth Vader on your cornflakes packet, or on your Campbell’s soup, but now we can buy women’s Star Wars T-shirts, purses and Stormtrooper dresses. There’s also ‘an innovative makeup line coming to you from a galaxy far, far away’. CoverGirl recently announced a line of The Force Awakens-inspired beauty products, from C-3PO gold to stormtrooper silver lipstick.
As Fortune magazine asserts, the question is not whether the whole ‘Force Awakens’ bandwagon will be successful but whether or not it will be the most successful movie of all time. Fortune highlights Morgan Stanley’s estimation that the film will generate to $650 million in the U.S. alone and $2.2 billion globally. It could even be, according to the Guardian, the first $3 billion dollar movie. This, it must be noted, is a figure which doesn’t factor in the $5 billion in merchandise sales expected in 2016. Consider that this is just the beginning of an almost relentless period of creativity and cross promotion which will see new films, TV shows and products in the coming years. Referring to ‘Force Awakens’ Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst with box-office research firm Rentrak, told Fortune:
This is just the calm before the storm. The closer we get to the film’s release, the excitement is going to reach a fever pitch.
So come Christmas Eve, as you prepare the sherry for Santa and the peelings for Rudolph, what you see in the night sky may not be the fabled sleigh. It may instead be the millennium falcon – the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.