Andrew Au
Sep 23, 2015

Star Wars: A Jedi-level class in integrated marketing and immersive storytelling

Andrew Au, managing director for Imagination Southeast Asia, contemplates the onslaught of Star Wars-themed marketing.

A scene from Star Wars: Rebels
A scene from Star Wars: Rebels

It took Friday September 4 (aka #ForceFriday) for me to fully appreciate the marketing freight train the Star Wars franchise truly is. On that day, Disney launched a full-frontal assault on the world with a simultaneous global launch of new toys and other products—an unheard of three months prior to the release of the ridiculously anticipated film Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens.

Full credit to Bob Iger, Walt Disney’s chairman and CEO, for the quiet acquisition of some of the biggest franchises in modern history. To name a few: Marvel (Iron Man, Captain America, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, the list goes on), Lucasfilms (Star Wars, Indiana Jones—hopefully J.J. Abrams’ next project!), Pixar (Toy Story, Monster Inc. Inside Out). That all these properties have the same parent company boggles the mind. And it is only now that Disney’s grand plan for global entertainment dominance is taking shape.

Let’s take a look at some of the elements of the Star Wars universe.

Film

The Force Awakens lands this coming Christmas and no doubt it will break all kinds of box office records. The trailers and sneak peeks of the new film seem to capture the nostalgia of Star Wars that fans loved from the original trilogy (Episodes IV, V and VI). The subsequent trilogy (Episodes I, II and III) seemed to be overly obsessed with CGI and resulted in mediocre films that were full of style but lacking in heart and substance.

Early days as it is, the upcoming film seems to understand the emotional connection fans have to the original trilogy and the early glimpses look very promising. Just hearing the scream of a TIE fighter or Chewbacca’s iconic growl is enough to make a Star Wars’ fan’s pulse race more than a little. And of course, the Millennium Falcon.

In addition to official sequels, anthology Star Wars films are being released in 2016 (Rogue One, which tells the story of the band of Rebels who stole the Death Star plans) and 2018 (a standalone Han Solo movie).

Television

I won’t spend much time on what Star Wars is doing in television other than to say my 3-year-old son is infatuated with Rebels.

I wouldn’t put it past Disney to launch a live action Star Wars TV series at some point in the future (possibly centred around a fringe character like Obi Wan Kenobi or Lando Calrissian). TV worked pretty well for another space themed franchise that also started with the word “Star”.

Toys

Star Wars is as much a toy franchise as it is a film franchise. To date Star Wars toys have raked in US$12 billion globally (more than the films collectively have made). The more notable toys that dropped on Force Friday include the new Lego range of Star Wars kits, Hasbro Star Wars toys and an app controlled BB-8, the new droid on the block, who will undoubtedly be competing with (and likely surpassing) its predecessor R2D2 to be the world’s most beloved droid.

What’s next

Films and toys are natural continuations and extensions of the franchise. Where things start to get interesting is when technology enters the mix.

Disney Infinity

Launched a few years ago, the Disney Infinity video game/toy system is in itself a master class in integrated product and content marketing. For the uninitiated, Disney Infinity brings all the characters under the Disney stable together in a physical and virtual manner. Beautifully crafted toy figurines (the physical) are required to access and unlock video game content (the virtual). In the Disney Infinity world it’s completely plausible for Buzz Lightyear, Mickey Mouse, Mr. Incredible, Iron Man, Aladdin, Captain Jack Sparrow, Tinkerbell, Anne and Elsa to be interacting with each other.

There have been two iterations of Disney Infinity, but the arrival of Disney Infinity 3.0 off the back of the new Star Wars film ensures Disney Infinity is only just getting started.

Star Wars: Battlefront

Electronic Arts’ upcoming Stars Wars: Battlefront is aimed at the more serious gamers and looks to be a first-person shooter on the order of the famed Call of Duty series. It looks incredible and will allow fanboys and fangirls the opportunity to be at the Battle of Hoth or fly the Millennium Falcon, for example. This game is the reason I finally upgraded from a Playstation 3 to a Playstation 4—so that gives you an indication of how promising the game looks.

Disney Playmation

Disney’s next venture into the toy/gaming space is equally ambitious. The company effectively wants to reinvent how kids play with toys by connecting the physical world with the digital world.  So far we know that wearable tech and toys will merge to be the basis of Disney’s Playmation platform. Playmation’s tagline is “Where digital becomes physical, and Imagination becomes real.” It will initially launch with an Avengers pack. A Star Wars pack won’t be far behind.

Theme park extensions

The theme parks are where I feel Disney shines the brightest. These immersive, interactive and engaging environments are fertile ground for memorable and unique experiences.

When inside a Disneyland theme park, visitors are effectively breathing Disney oxygen every step of the way—and visitors pay for the privilege of being marketed to whilst inside the parks. Rides, entertainment and merchandising all result in visitors giving Disney more share of wallet either in the theme parks or outside of the parks (toys, films, apps, apparel, books, etc.).

The theme parks are physical spaces packed full of interactive content. It’s easy to forget that Disney has been in the business of creating experiences well before the words 'experience' or 'experiential' entered the marketing lexicon. Disney is the granddaddy of experience marketing, and the company continues to be a guiding light and inspiration to today’s storytellers and marketers.

Fast Company’s recent piece on how Disney is effectively reinventing the park experience is a fascinating read. The essence of how the parks can now be experienced is demonstrated through the introduction of Disney’s MyMagic+ bands. These physical bands can unlock your hotel room, store your meal preferences, fast track queues, charge purchases to your room, and keep track of photos taken within the theme park. The sheer amount of work to design and implement these new bands was a Herculean effort for Disney and its partners and in itself worth looking deeper into (check out the Fast Company link below).

Disney continues its trail-blazing track record with the recent announcement at D23, Disney’s bi-annual expo, that Star Wars theme parks would be added to Disneyland in Anaheim and Disneyworld in Orlando. These expansions would be the largest ever in Disney’s history. No word yet on Star Wars expansions to Paris, Tokyo or Hong Kong, but reports indicate the new Shanghai park will include a Star Wars section.

The future of filmmaking and storytelling

Industrial Light & Magic has been the standard bearer for special effects. (In addition to the Star Wars films, ILM has worked its magic on the Jurassic Park films, the Terminator films, Forrest Gump, Titanic, the Harry Potter films, the Iron Man films, and the Transformers films.)

(Interesting factoid: Photoshop was created by ILM staffers as a summer project.)

ILM, via its skunk-works division ILMxLab, is at the forefront of exploring how virtual reality will change filmmaking. It certainly helps that ILM is the benchmark setter for visual effects and that it has an incredible content library. Add Skywalker Sound into the mix and you have some very robust foundations from which to imagine what the future of storytelling might be.

At the very least ILMxLab’s experiments will have a profound effect on how filmmakers visualise film environments. Sure, nothing beats the authenticity of scouting and shooting on location (think David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia) but imagine filmmaking inside the Matrix, which is effectively what ILMxLab is doing. The people there are creating virtual environments that filmmakers can interact with in real time. They can decide how to frame or track a shot in a virtual world. They can place a camera anywhere in that world, and that opens up worlds of opportunity in how films will be made. Imagine being able to experience (not ‘watch’, as watching is passive and experiencing is immersive and interactive) the infamous Han Solo/Greedo scene in the Mos Eisley Cantina from either Han Solo’s or Greedo’s first-person perspective. Who shot first would be settled pretty quickly. [Han shot first. -Ed.]

Incidentally John Gaeta, the special-effects designer who invented Bullet Time (the crazy flow-motion visual effect seen in the seminal scene in The Matrix where Neo bends time to dodge bullets) is a founding member of ILMxLab.

As a fan I’m really looking forward to all this cool stuff coming our way. But as a marketing professional I’m equally excited and optimistic at where our industry is headed. To infinity and beyond!

Additional reading:

There is much to read about Disney and Star Wars, but I would highly recommend the Fortune article as well as the Fast Company story (first two links below). They are both incredibly informative and fascinating pieces on where Disney is headed.


Andrew Au is managing director, Southeast Asia, at Imagination

 

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