Disney to use the force in marketing Star Wars and its spin-offs
News of a spin-off film about Han Solo and a rumoured return for Darth Vader are the latest signs that Disney is keen to expand the Star Wars universe
A long time ago - 38 years to be exact - movie audiences were transported to a galaxy far, far away: one where imperial cruisers battled rebel fighters, where protocol droids rubbed circuits with Wookiees, and where a spaceship called the Millennium Falcon could make "the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs".
That was 1977, but in 2015, as the franchise approaches its seventh big-screen instalment, interest in Star Wars shows no sign of abating. This week brought news of a new film about Han Solo and of a reappearance for Darth Vader.
"Countless fans around the world are in a constant state of vigilance, waiting for the release of new poster art, new trailers and other titbits and information,"says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at box office monitor Rentrak. "It's hard to imagine any other movie franchise that could evoke a level of passion, enthusiasm and excitement."
The latest bout of Star Wars mania dates from Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm from the film's creator, George Lucas, in 2012; the US$4 billion acquisition was accompanied by an announcement of three more sequential "episodes" - VII, VIII and IX - plus unspecified plans for spin-offs and "standalones" to plug the gaps in the release schedule.
Details of the second such spin-off have been made public: an "origins story" about Han Solo, the intergalactic smuggler played by Harrison Ford in the first three films, which is scheduled to be released in May 2018.
It will follow the release in December this year of Episode VII, directed by J.J. Abrams and titled Star Wars: The Force Awakens; the unnamed Episode VIII due out in 2017 and the already announced spin-off - or "anthology film", as they are known to Star Wars aficionados - Rogue One, which will arrive in cinemas next year.
That movie, directed by Gareth Edwards and staring The Theory of Everything's Felicity Jones, will outline a rebel mission to steal the plans of the Death Star, a key plot element of the first film in 1977. Levels of interest in the rumour this week that Rogue One will also feature the reappearance of Darth Vader, the black-clad villain of the original series, only confirmed the power of Star Wars nostalgia.
In creating a multi-stranded, multi-character cinema "universe" around Star Wars, Lucasfilm-Disney are taking their cue from the phenomenally successful series of films produced by Marvel Studios, which Disney also acquired in 2009.
Disney has brought a whole new level of marketing savvy to an already popular product: Dergarabedian cites the decision to make all six existing Star Wars films available on streaming services as "a brilliant way to stoke the fires and build the anticipation for the new film and reinvigorate the idea of Star Wars in the minds of the fans".
Whether it needs reinvigorating is questionable. The level of unbridled enthusiasm that has surrounded Star Wars for at least the last two decades is evidenced by what has become known as the "Expanded Universe": the plethora of novels, comics, video games and merchandising that Lucasfilm has created or licensed over the years.
This ancillary material began emerging as far back as 1978, but was given a massive kick by the mushrooming of the internet in the 1990s - for which Star Wars fandom was an ideal pursuit - even providing a platform for one of the earliest, and most influential "fan films": a reality-TV parody called Troops, which first appeared in 1997. Roleplay and fan participation show no sign of slowing: in Britain, event-cinema brand Secret Cinema have found considerable commercial success with their live staging of The Empire Strikes Back.
Michael Rosser, news editor for Screen International, suggests that it is this "shared universe" of highly infectious nostalgia that keeps Star Wars in pole position among film franchises. "The great thing about the original films was that they created a huge universe of characters and possibility that sparked the imagination of viewers," he says.
"For years people have been wondering how the different strands would play out. This new film - because it's going back to Han Solo and Luke Skywalker - looks as though it will reconnect with the Star Wars touchstones in a way that the prequels failed to."
Rosser is referring to the three films Lucas directed between 1999 and 2005 - The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith - which chronicled the life of Luke Skywalker's father, Anakin, who transforms into Darth Vader. Despite being greeted with less-than-stellar reviews, the prequels grossed US$2.5 billion worldwide, shortly after the release of restored and augmented "special editions" of the first trilogy had netted US$469 million in 1997.
"It shows the power of Star Wars that, although they were disappointing, the prequels still managed to make a lot of money," says Rosser. "If you combine that drawing power with a great filmmaker like J.J. Abrams, you can understand why a lot of people will be excited."
In a film business where branding is everything and a successful franchise is the answer to everybody's prayers, is there a risk that movie studios will simply become branding machines, and lose their interest in cinema for its own sake?
Rosser thinks not. "As the saying goes: it's not show-show, it's show business. They are desperate to ensure the longevity of the franchise, and make sure the quality is kept up. They are also trying to bring people into the theatres at a time when lots are staying home for entertainment. But you don't want to watch Star Wars on your iPhone, so I don't think it's going to run out of steam any time soon."
Meanwhile, Dergarabedian is anticipating massive business when The Force Awakens reaches cinemas in December. "We are certainly looking at a record opening for December, and should go on to make at least a billion dollars worldwide. Truly, Star Wars is the ultimate movie brand."