A Long, Long Time Ago, Star Wars Changed Movie Marketing Forever

Today marks Star Wars’ 40th anniversary. On May 25, 1977, “Star Wars: A New Hope” began its run across silver screens around the US. The film kicked off a global phenomenon, including a wildly successful franchise that has licensed over $20 billion worth of goods.

With the eighth installment, “The Last Jedi,” coming out this December, Lucasfilms (now owned by Disney) is certainly leveraging the big anniversary. Vanity Fair just released four special covers for its May magazine featuring “The Last Jedi” cast, including the late Carrie Fisher. The spread included previews into the newest Star Wars film, including new cast members.

In addition to the special Vanity Fair spread, the Star Wars website is featuring special 40th anniversary contentDisney stores are hosting special events at their stores, and selling collectibles and anniversary items. Of course, a Star Wars anniversary event wouldn’t be complete without the original Kenner action figures. Hasbro, who acquired Kenner in 1991, is releasing a special line of Star Wars figurines which hark back to the classic toys from 1977.

Star Wars was monumental not only in the way it changed the trajectory of popular culture and entertainment, but in how it revolutionized film marketing strategies. Before 1977, films were not marketed as they are now – film studios banked on ticket sales to bring in the dollars. Lucasfilms tried another strategy, harnessing merchandising power with co-branded campaigns.

Before the original Star Wars film was released, Lucasfilms released a series of comic books as a setup to the theater experience. George Lucas also sold toy-merchandising rights to Kenner (at the time, a division of General Mills) for a flat fee of $100,000. Neither Kenner nor Lucas were prepared for the huge success of the Star Wars film.

Among the products that Kenner created were a set of small action figures based on characters from the Star Wars film. The figures flew off the shelf and Kenner wasn’t able to meet demand. At Christmastime, Kenner sold an “Early Bird Certificate Package” which was redeemable for four Star Wars figures, a display stand, stickers, and a Star Wars fan club membership.

A year later, Kenner released four more figures from the famous Cantina scene. For the release of the next film in 1978, “Empire Strikes Back,” both Lucasfilm and Kenner were ready with marketing strategies. Kenner sent out mail promotions prior to the film’s debut and added new figures to the series. And by the end of 1978, the company had sold more than 40 million of the figures for more than $100 million. In total, Kenner released 96 action figures, ending production in 1985.

Lucasfilm may have been testing the marketing waters in 1977, but when the next film rolled around, they were ramped up and ready to go, launching a new era of TV-driven movie marketing. While marketing strategies may have changed and developed over the years, Lucasfilm still relies heavily on TV. In 2015, Ad Age reported that “The Force Awakens” TV spend was at more than $66 million.




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