How Disney's 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' Marketing Battled Franchise Saturation

With only five months separating the Han Solo film from 'The Last Jedi,' the studio faced unique challenges.
Disney
A Western theme was highlighted in Tom Whalen's art for the Imax edition 'Solo: A Star Wars Story' posters.

Although it received mostly favorable reviews and boasts the buzzy presence of Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian, the Sabacc deck seems to have been stacked against Solo: A Star Wars Story since the moment the movie was announced by Lucasfilm in July 2015.

The fear from some fans? That, at best, the film would be inconsequential, a part of the Star Wars universe that didn't need exploring. At worst, especially with the high-profile director swap of Chris Miller and Phil Lord for Ron Howard last June, that the film could diminish some of the swagger of Harrison Ford's iconic character.

That sentiment is what the Disney marketing team was tasked with addressing in promoting Solo — just a few months after the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which has grossed $1.3 billion worldwide to date.

Here's a closer look at how Disney has handled the rollout for Solo, which is tracking for a $300 million global bow over Memorial Day weekend.

The Trailers

Fans got their first look at the movie via a 45-second "Big Game" ad (7.4 million views on YouTube) that aired during the Feb. 4 Super Bowl and which offered the barest of outlines and glimpses, never showing Solo clearly but establishing that Alden Ehrenreich's character is finding himself and his place in the galaxy. The main purpose of the spot was to promote the release of the full teaser the next day on corporate sibling ABC's Good Morning America.

As the Feb. 5 first teaser (12.7 million views) opens, we hear Solo talking about how he's lived a hard life, relying on his wits since he was a kid, running scams and eventually getting kicked out of the Imperial Academy for being too difficult. All that happens amid scenes of chases through a crowded marketplace.

The April 8 full trailer (13.6 million views) is more about how Han is always chasing something. Emilia Clarke's Qi'ra is asking him, via narration, what it is he's after as we see him meeting Lando, inspecting the Millennium Falcon and so on. We once again see him being recruited into a crew of outlaws, this time as Woody Harrelson's Beckett warns him there's no turning back from that life once he's in. There's also a bit where Lando says "Better buckle up, Baby" to Han that set Twitter and Tumblr on fire.

The Posters

On Feb. 5, the same time the first teaser trailer appeared, a series of four character posters dropped. Each showed a different member of the cast through the window-like openings of their name, a brightly colored planet behind them. So we see Solo, Chewie, Qi'ra and Lando. They all evoke a Western wanted poster feel with faded white paper and dog-earred corners. (It also led to a claim of design theft, with Disney later saying the posters were created by an "outside vendor.")

The April 8 debut of the theatrical poster combined all those characters into one image while maintaining the overall design of seeing them through what in this case is not only the main character's name but also the title of the movie. A few of the supporting characters are added to the background as well.

AMC's Dolby exclusive poster was just a variation on the theatrical one-sheet's design, retaining that wanted poster feel of being a bit weathered and worn. A Fandango exclusive design showed all the main characters walking dramatically toward the camera as the Falcon hung suspended in the background.

A pair of Imax exclusives showed characters standing in front of a sunset as the Falcon was chased by TIE fighters in the sky above. One showed the good guys, the other the bad guys. Another Imax poster had the crew in their standard positions, but with the outline of the Falcon behind them. A more standard-looking one-sheet had most of the characters on the ground walking away from the ship but featured Ehrenreich's head hovering over everyone.

Those were just some of the handful of exhibitor-exclusive posters, cards and other items available for patrons of different chains and movie houses. One more set of character posters showed Han, Lando and Chewbacca garthered around the Sabacc table.

Advertising and Publicity

"Where's the Solo trailer?" "Why hasn't the marketing of Solo started yet?"

Those were all frequently shared opinions on social media and in news headlines in the latter half of 2017, skepticism reinforced by the directorial shuffle and rumors about other production issues.

Those critics did have a point: The marketing of modern blockbusters usually kicks off six to seven months before release, so as the calendar flipped to 2018 without a trailer or any other material, the absence of a campaign became increasingly notable.

But those logistical issues overlooked how, to date, Disney hasn't overlapped the campaigns and release windows for any of its Star Wars movies. The marketing of 2016's Rogue One didn't start until 2015's The Force Awakens was out of theaters and on home video. Likewise with last year's The Last Jedi, which waited until a bow had been put on Rogue One. Given that, it was unlikely that a Solo campaign would run at the same time as The Last Jedi's since it could have possibly cannibalized audience attention and potentially created marketplace confusion.

(One upside to the short window between films: By keeping Solo in its May slot, Disney now has a full year to make a Big Deal about 2019's Episode IX in a manner similar to how The Force Awakens ran a 13-month campaign, all of which will happen after Solo is out of theaters and on home video.)

It's in the TV campaign that the marketing push really both came alive and evidenced a shift in how it was being presented to the audience. Spots like April 15's "Crew" (1 million views) and April 17's "Risk" (1 million views) offered more looks at the characters, with the Han/Lando friendship as its focal point. April 28's "Han" (209K views) and May 3's "Rivals" (110K views) once again homed in on the friendly but competitive relationship between Han and Lando.

Hitting that beat even harder on May 2 was a video tour (663K views) of a still-pristine Millennium Falcon by Glover. A 360-degree video (248K views) of Han and Lando playing their pivotal game of Sabacc to decide the fate of the Falcon was released that let the viewer pivot the camera around to get a better look at the cards and the assembled aliens around the two scoundrels. That character focus may have culminated with the release of May 9's "Han Meets Lando" (241K views) showing the first meeting of Han and Lando over another game of Sabacc.

Marketing Stunts

On April 25, a promotional tour was announced that would bring re-creations of the Falcon's cockpit and other scenes from the movie to a handful of cities. A charitable effort called "#RoarForChange" was the Star Wars version of the Ice Bucket Challenge. A video (136K views) had the cast talking about what a diva Chewbacca was on the set and encouraged viewers to tag friends into the challenge to raise funds. That campaign also included The Lego Group offering New York City pedestrians a ride in a mini Lego Falcon pedicab.

In an out-of-the-box move, Ron Howard narrated an Arrested Development-esque YouTube video (639K views) retelling of Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope, complete with sound effects, visual gags and music pulled from the show. In the middle of the video, after Han boasts of the Falcon's speed to Luke, it cuts to a promo for the movie.

On May 15, five days after the world premiere in Los Angeles, the movie screened (out of competition) at the Cannes Film Festival, a screening meant to bring it back to the top of everyone's mind and take advantage of so much of the entertainment industry's press being in France at the time. A big celebration with many of the movie's stars and a huge fireworks display followed the screening.

Promo Partners

In terms of promotional partners, there were quite a few, including:

Denny's, which created a movie-themed menu and offered collectible trading cards to diners who ordered it. That menu was supported by an ad campaign including a TV spot that had two kids as Han and Lando — with Chewie in the background — playing Sabacc in an alien bar.

Esurance, which launched a campaign including a TV spot encouraging people to check out their insurance options to make sure their "real life Millennium Falcon" (i.e., their car) was protected against damage.

Norton, which used a co-branded campaign to promote the company's partnership with LifeLock to provide a more well-rounded suite of personal security products.

Nissan, which used the movie to promote its 2018 Rogue, a car that it has tied to previous Star Wars movies as well.

Solo Cups, which took advantage of the thematically appropriate connection to offer co-branded packaging supported by an ad campaign. There was also a contest to win a "Solo Party Pack," including movie tickets and a co-branded T-shirt.

Snapchat, which worked with Lucasfilm for a special filter released on May the Fourth that let people transform their selfies into Chewbacca photos and add Star Wars stickers and graphics to their messages.

Google, which rolled out Alexa-based ticket buying with a Solo-themed kickoff.

Overall

A new actor trying to step into Harrison Ford's Corellian bloodstripe was going to be daunting, especially in an era where fans are appear to be polarized in their opinions. In the end, in the marketing, three of the movie's players wound up personifying different attributes that make Han Solo an intriguing character: Ehrenreich brought the hustle, Glover brought the breezy charm and swagger, and Howard brought the humor.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer with 15 years of experience in the social media and content marketing industry.

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