Movie Marketing Madness – Revenge of the Sith

revengeofthesithWhen Star Wars came out I was two. My parents have told me they took me to see it, which I did with wide-eyed wonder. When Return of the Jedi came out I was eight. When the Special Edition of A New Hope came out I was 22. When The Phantom Menace came out I was 24 (and about to be married but which one I was anticipating more is subject to debate). I am part of the built-in audience for Revenge of the Sith.
You see, I have an irrational love affair with Star Wars. It all started when I was a child and my entire existence became centered on the universe George Lucas had created. The towns surrounding my home took on the names of planets. My dog (much to her chagrin) became a taunton. Action figures were played with and my childhood play-acting more often than not involved Star Wars (being blonde I was Luke, and that included multiple Halloweens).

I was an addict

And now we come to Revenge of the Sith, the entire reason I started writing this column. One year ago I emailed editor Eric Campos asking if he would consider Movie Marketing Madness as a successor to the late and lamented Movies on the Brain. To the best of my knowledge he never suspected that my ultimate motive was that I would be able to, one year from that date, be able to write a column devoted to Star Wars.

Not a day has gone by since mid-1998 that Lucas and the marketing departments of his myriad organizations that haven’t been focused on the release of this, the final movie in the prequel trilogy. The first two movies (which I have to admit here that I actually like) were the setup for not just the third and final act but also were trial runs for marketing strategies. In fact, it could be argued, that the marketing for the Special Editions was a warm-up lap for the Prequels. Everybody remember how many potato chip bags and such had Star Wars tie-ins in for the SE’s?

The Posters

I’ve made my feelings on the teaser poster well known so I have only a bit to add. The teasers for the first two prequels were photos. Phantom Menace had Jake Lloyd on the desert of Tatooine with Darth Vader’s shadow behind him (still one of my favorite images). Attack of the Clones featured Padme and Anakin, backs to each other, symbolizing the divide between them. (Quick question: Does anyone else think Anakin in the AotC teaser poster looks badly bruised? He looks to me like he just got out of the ring with Clubber Lang. Just me? Alright.)

The Revenge of the Sith poster, though, is a drawing which very awkwardly transforms Anakin’s flowing cape into Vader’s helmet. I get what they’re going for but it just doesn’t work for me.

I love the theatrical poster though. Not only does it feature more beautiful Drew Struzan artwork but it fits graphically with the poster for Attack of the Clones as well as those for the Special Editions of the original trilogy. It’s great to see a visual theme get carried through the saga. It does seem a tad busy but I’m willing to overlook it.

The Trailers

The teaser trailer debuted November 4, 2004 and gave the audience the first official glimpse of Revenge of the Sith. It’s a great trailer and plays heavily into the nostalgia factor that Lucas and company are relying on to make Sith a hit (like it really needs that much help). A lot of people noted its lack of dialogue and general opinion seemed to be since Lucas generally sucks at dialogue that was a good thing. I have to admit to watching it online dozens of times.

The theatrical trailer was fuller and really started, it seems, to get excitement going for this flick. It’s action-oriented and we get even longer shots of our favorite characters from the saga. We also saw our first extended view of the final battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin, ending with Ben’s screamed declaration, “You were the Chosen One!” The trailer really, though, is just eye-candy. So many images fly past us that it’s almost impossible to sit back and sort through it all. The focus on action plays into Lucas’ declaration that this installment is the darkest and, to paraphrase the flannelled-one, takes us into Hell.

The TV Spots

There have been three waves of television commercials released, all of which came after the release of the theatrical trailer.

The first series, labeled “Teaser”, “Dark Side Unleashed” and “Tragedy” were great. “Teaser” really was just a tighter version of the trailer but still rocked. The other two featured new footage and did admirable jobs of building upon the trailers in terms of laying out an overview of the story. These are probably the best of the bunch.

“Jedi Action 1”, “Unite” and “Jedi Action 2” sucked. It was obvious, both by the silly footage included and the overly cheerful narration that these were designed for kids. Not just teens and tweens but actual kids. These could have very easily been plugged into commercial blocks on The Disney Channel.

The final batch, including “To Protect You”, “End of Wars” and “Seduction” get back to the good stuff. These really focus on Anakin’s fall and betrayal not only of the Jedi but of Padme. Let’s face it, this is what we want to see: Darth Vader emerge from the ash-heap of Anakin Skywalker. That desire is played into very well by these ads.

The Website

Starwars.com has existed for a while, since at least 1997 or so. I remember visiting it shortly after the Special Edition release to watch “Anatomy of a Dewback”, a video series on the creation of the dewbacks for the new release. It was also there were we were given a first look at Phantom Menace (I think it was R2-D2 in a Naboo fighter sitting in the docking bay). Over the course of the years it’s been retooled a number of times to highlight the latest movie or other development in the Star Wars universe.

Revenge of the Sith, though, marks the first time the latest movie has completely eclipsed the rest of the site. When you now visit the site you are greeted by a Flash page where you can navigate to all the trailers, promotions, posters and more. I was bit disappointed to see what had always been a pretty straightforward site degrade into Flash hell but I couldn’t really complain with the execution. Everything is well laid out and easy to navigate.

If you’re interests lie more with the other movies you can still click-through to the main site. The site contains everything I could hope for in a movie website: A complete list of characters, full history and archives of promotional material, video footage, a guide to collectibles… just about everything. If there’s anything missing it’s a complete universe timeline, including events from the books and comics but that type of thing is available on many fan sites so I won’t complain too much. Still, I’d love to see the site compile the ultimate history of Star Wars and keep it up-to-date.

The Merchandising

“Merchandising, merchandising, where the real money from the movie is made.” – Yogurt (Spaceballs, 1987)

The merchandising campaign for Episode III is unlike any other. The entire 28 year history of the Star Wars franchise has been pulled out and put on display in anticipation of this release. The tie-ins don’t just utilize the Revenge of the Sith iconography but that of the whole series. You’re just as likely to see Luke or an Ewok looking at you from a product display at the grocery store as you are Padme or General Grievous. It’s like D-Day: Sheer concentration of manpower, all of which is devoted to one goal. If this doesn’t work nothing will.

The list of promotional partners is simply too great to go into here. Fast food chains, snack food manufacturers, clothing makers and countless others all signed on to create Episode III related merchandise. They all wants them a piece of, as Jay so eloquently put it, that fat movie cash.

The advantage Lucasfilm has in Episode III merchandising is, first and foremost, Darth Vader. Vader was the villain (some would say the actual star) of the classic trilogy and in this installment we actually see him emerge from the Jedi once known as Anakin Skywalker. Therefore Vader can become the focus of the promotional images used on merchandise and create an emotional connection for fans to the original movies and the marketing department isn’t actually cheating because he does appear in this movie.

The release of this merchandise had to have been planned to within an inch of its life. One day in early April saw the release of the novelization, tons of toys and other materials. I have a very clear image of trucks carrying this stuff in perfect synchronization, like government vehicles moving toward the location of an alien sighting.

The Toys

Shortly before The Phantom Menace came out Hasbro launched a wave of figures designed to give fans their first glimpse at some of the characters. They continued this gimmick with Attack of the Clones and of course with Revenge of the Sith. At the beginning of April there were a half-dozen figures released along with other toys and collectors items.

I have no doubt (though I haven’t checked) that there are many dozen available by now featuring the main players in all the different outfits they sport throughout the film and a smattering of the minor characters. More are sure to be released as the months go on and a new wave will probably crest with the eventual DVD release, now rumored to be shortly before Christmas 2005.

Along with the new figures Hasbro is also taking this opportunity to repackage older figures in packaging consistent with the Revenge of the Sith branding. There’s nothing really new about these since most are just repackagings but collectors love them. “Oooooo! The same Han Solo figure I bought last year for $10 now costs $15 and comes in a newly designed box! I must have it to keep in the clamshell and display tacked to my wall in such a way so as not to destroy the delicate cardboard” is pretty much the attitude they’re counting on here.

In all truthfulness the toys have gotten much cooler over the years. The figures I grew up with couldn’t do much but these new ones feature something like 28 points of articulation and do everything but program your TiVo for you. I fully expect in the next three years action figure technology (?) will advance to the point where these things can act out scenes from the movie on their own. A plastic figure with a computer chip would probably give a more lifelike performance than Jake Lloyd so that might be a good thing.

The Revenge of the Sith line contains figures, vehicles, playsets, collectors statues, lightsabers, voice-changers and even Darth Tater, a Mr. Potatohead with Darth Vader costume accessories. No demographic has been ignored; with ages 2 to 92 all getting something they can collect. I fully expect to walk into an auto supply store and see Star Wars themed oil filters.

The DVDs

Not only does Lucas love to re-release his movies on various home video formats but he loves to include features that make it all but impossible for fans to avoid this. At least he’s made it almost impossible for this particular fan to avoid this.

This started in earnest with second VHS release of the original trilogy in 2001. Despite the fact of there being no difference between this iteration and the 1998 VHS release many fans lapped it up because it contained a five or six minute sneak peak at Episode II. (This is the one release I didn’t buy, which is saying something.)

You would think that the classic movies finally arriving on DVD would have been enough for most fans but the well-publicized changes Lucas had made to the movies made the release controversial. To appeal to these fence-sitters, the bonus disc packaged with the much-anticipated DVD release of the original trilogy likewise contained a brief feature on Episode III. It really wasn’t much, mostly consisting of lightsaber practice with Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor. It was enough, though, for a lot of those undecideds to go ahead and drop $45 or so.

Likewise, the teaser trailer was included on the DVD release of the animated Clone Wars series which aired on Cartoon Network. Again, if anyone was undecided, this one bonus feature might have made the difference in a lot of purchasing choices.

At the same time they released the Clone Wars DVD Lucasfilm also released DVDs of the Ewoks and Droids cartoons from the early 1980s, as well as the made-for-television Ewok movies. While officially releasing these properties may have pushed the bounds of the Unintentional Comedy Scale, they did find their way onto the shopping lists of quite a few obsessive-compulsively inclined fans. More importantly, they were all part of the effort to build the hype for Revenge of the Sith.

Press Coverage

We’ve all read the stories, which by now can be recited by just about any fan verbatim, of how Star Wars changed movie marketing. Never before was such emphasis given to opening a movie huge on its first weekend on thousands of screens. Never before had action figures been seen as a legitimate revenue source. Lucas was a genius for retaining the merchandising rights for himself. Never before had so many fans cried out in joy (in 1977) and then been suddenly silenced (in 1999).

In The Phantom Menace there were two speeches about symbiotic relationships. The Gungans and the Naboo formed one and midichlorians (sorry to bring those up, especially since they’ve been ignored since then) formed the other with, well, life.

George Lucas has a similar relationship with the press. His movies wouldn’t be as successful without the zeitgeist created by the media and the media count on Star Wars cover stories to boost sales/impressions/audience. The average reader of sci-fi magazines might not subscribe to Time, Newsweek, GQ, Wired or any of the other mainstream publications that have put out Star Wars themed issues lately but they will pick up those issues.

As I walk to work each day I get a pretty good glimpse of the front pages of the major newspapers and they, too, have been slavishly putting Yoda, Vader, Anakin and just about everyone short of Jar-Jar (sorry to bring him up too) on the banner advertising what goodies are inside the paper.

So how hard-hitting can these stories be? Are any of the interviewers really going to take Lucas to task for dumbing-down the franchise? Anyone going to ask Rick McCullum about his Orson Welles-esque weight gain over the last seven years? Anyone going to ask Hayden Christensen how far that pole is shoved up his posterior?

Most of the coverage is made up stories ranging from big wet sloppy kiss to mere softball interviews. The publications (and TV producers for that matter) no who butters their bread and aren’t going to honk off Lucas or his fans. To do the former means potentially being cut out from future events and potential exclusives. Do the former and you’re going to be blasted from one end of the internet to the other and you’re outlet will be stigmatized before the printing press has a chance to cool down.

It’s also advisable for the press to go easy on the fans. Best to just run a loving look at these erstwhile folks who get so gosh-darn excited the only way to express their admiration for the movies is to get dressed up like Imperial Officer 782 and stand in line. Ask them silly questions about their day jobs and such. Don’t actually do any psychological explorations of compulsion. If you do that they won’t pick up the issue or watch the broadcast to see if their quote was used. Not a good idea.

(About the only thing I’ve read that has had any sense of objectivity to it is Pete Vonder Haar’s “Star Wars Report” series of columns. If you haven’t been reading them regularly check them out.)

Overall

Does it really matter how good the campaign actually is? No. The trailer could have featured Lucas taking a dump on a Millennium Falcon toy and it still would have registered millions of views in the first few hours. The website could have been done on GeoCities and still would draw record breaking visitors. The poster could have been designed by me and would still be a collector’s item.

But looking at it is a pretty solid effort. The majority of the video elements are good, with the exception of that second batch of TV spots. The artistic elements are good, with the exception of the teaser poster. The website is about as full of information on the universe as a whole as you can find (but really needs an RSS feed to inform people of updates).

I don’t claim to be objective about this as I’m a fan and, as I stated earlier, even like Episodes I and II. But that’s who is really being appealed to, right? Even if you’re like Vonder Haar or my brother-in-law, both of whom have been mixed to negative on the two recent movies, you know you can’t resist seeing this one. The desire to see if Lucas can redeem himself and, possibly, justify the tone and story set in the TPM and AotC might be irresistible.