'Rise of Skywalker' Marketing Faces Challenge of Meeting Fans Expectations

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Disney and Lucasfilm's campaign is geared to leave audiences on a positive note, assured that their beloved universe remains in good hands while new projects being developed are brought to fruition.

Forty-two years after the world of Star Wars exploded on the big screen with a small consular ship being chased by a massive grey weapon of war, the story of the Skywalker family is set to close this week as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker comes to theaters.

The movie is the fifth in the Disney era, which kicked off with 2015’s The Force Awakens and kept up in 2017 with The Last Jedi. Those movies introduced us to a new generation of heroes, including the mysterious Rey (Daisy Ridley), the former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and ace pilot Poe (Oscar Issac). Along the way they’ve received help, training and more from the old guard of Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) and hero of the Rebellion Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). 

The Rise of Skywalker comes as the end cap to what is now a nine-film series, just as creator George Lucas long said he originally envisioned. At the center of all the films — aside from the spinoff movies like Solo and Rogue One — has been the Skywalker family. First Anakin (the Prequels), then Luke and Leia (the Original Trilogy) and now Kylo.

That’s exactly how the film has been sold in a campaign that kicked off in April and has gained steam over the subsequent months. With tracking estimating an opening weekend of up to $200 million, anticipation for how the story concludes, what lingering questions will be resolved and what it means for the future of the galaxy far, far away is high. 

The Posters

Much like the previous two episodes, the teaser poster that was released along with the first trailer in early April just sports the title treatment set amidst a field of stars. 

An exclusive D23 poster was given away at fan event in August that showed Rey and Kylo engaged in a clearly epic battle on some sort of massive piece of machinery, their lightsabers blazing as Palpatine’s hooded eyes look on from the background.

The gorgeous theatrical poster (by marketing agency LA) released in October evokes the design of the theatrical poster for A New Hope with its white border and broad, colorful look and feel. All the main characters on both sides of the conflict are shown along with the Falcon, Star Destroyers and more.

All the main players got their own character posters in a series (by marketing agency Art Machine) released in November that look like trading cards with their white frames and stark, simple images.

An Imax poster by artist Dan Mumford offers an interpretation of the fateful duel between Kylo and Rey. For the Dolby Cinemas poster what’s shown is a sole X-Wing facing down a fleet of Star Destroyers.

An additional Imax poster puts Rey in the middle of an image that overlaps pictures of Leia, Luke and Kylo Ren to show the key relationships and conflicts in the story, as well as the legacies the younger characters have to grapple with. The RealD 3D poster goes even further in mimicking the design of the original Star Wars one-sheet, putting all the characters in similar positions as Luke, Leia and the crew 40+ years ago.

Continuing that referencing of old marketing material, a throwback poster released just a few days ago signals it’s time to “Let the final battle begin” in simple white lettering against a blue background. It’s a similar look to the 1977 teaser poster for the first movie that introduced audiences to a story set “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

The Trailers

As expected, the teaser (34 million views on YouTube) trailer debuted in April at Star Wars Celebration in Chicago, coming at the end of a panel featuring the movie’s cast and crew. It introduces us to a handful of concepts used throughout the rest of the campaign, including Rey being on her own, Luke’s narration about the legacy of the Jedi, the return of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and, most ominously, the return of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Along the way, it's also made clear that Finn, Poe, BB-8 and everyone else will be back for one last fight as well.

The echoes back to previous teasers create a strong sense of continuity, tying the whole series together. Even the use of “Every generation has a legend” is a reference to the trailer for Episode I: The Phantom Menace, positioning this new movie as both the end of the story of the Skywalkers and the beginning of something new in its own right.

Part of the movie’s presence at Disney’s D23 Expo in August was the release of a “Special Look” (22 million views on YouTube) trailer that starts off with Luke’s narration over important footage from all eight saga movies to date. What got everyone’s attention is what appears at the end, with Rey seeming to wear Sith robes and sporting a dual-bladed red lightsaber.

The final trailer (34 million views on YouTube) was released in late October, starting off by showing several shots of Rey running from unseen threats as voiceover from various characters explains the remnants of the Resistance are in this together and still strong. From there we see a duel between Rey and Kylo, a massive fleet of ragtag ships preparing to take on the First Order’s navy, space horses racing along the exterior of a ship and lots more action. Palpatine’s voice is heard threatening the heroes and his floating throne is later seen encroaching on Rey. At the very end, Luke Skywalker begins to say “The Force will be with you” but it’s Leia’s voice that adds the emotional “always” to the end.

Publicity

The big announcement of the core cast — at least most of them — came in late July of last year. Noted by everyone was the return of both Luke and Leia and Lando, as well as the fact that the release specifically identifies this movie as “final installment of the Skywalker saga.” Shortly after that, Abrams announced filming had kicked off with his first-ever Twitter post.

In early May Lucasfilm announced a complete line of books for all ages to be published under the “Journey to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” umbrella, similar to previous efforts for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

At the same Celebration where the teaser trailer debuted, Lucasfilm announced it would once more be running the “Force For Change” philanthropic campaign, this time partnering with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) to inspire kids to learn more about those fields. The campaign included a sweepstakes offering one of those donating to the cause an early visit to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the new attraction at Disneyland Resort.

Disney’s presence at Essence Fest in early July included promotions for the movie. A few weeks later, Disney brought it to San Diego Comic-Con, using that venue to debut the new Sith Trooper via a variety of consumer products and more.

A month later, Lucasfilm was given its first-ever pavilion on the show floor of Disney’s D23 Fan Expo with a display highlighting the evolution of stormtrooper design and more, including a look at the new Jet Trooper. In addition to the exclusive poster and “special look” mentioned above, the cast and crew took to the stage to get fans excited and hype how emotional the movie was going to be.

Promotional partners for the movie included:

Porsche, which began teasing its campaign in October. That campaign included “The Designer Alliance,” an effort that combined designers from Porsche and Lucasfilm to design a new spaceship using elements of the carmaker’s Taycan Turbo S. A more traditional co-branded spot interspersed elements of the car and footage from this and previous movies to sell the idea that driving a Porsche is akin to flying a starship.

► United Airlines, which revealed in April it would be painting one of its 787-800s with Rise of Skywalker branding, also running a sweepstakes that gave the winner a trip to the movie’s premiere. The airline also produced a movie-themed safety video that was used on flights. A co-branded commercial was later released encouraging people to use the airline to visit a galaxy far, far away.

Samsung Mobile, which released a movie-branded edition of its Galaxy Note10+, with a co-branded commercial showing how to “Connect Your Universe” with Samsung devices.

Dannon, which put movie branding on Danimals yogurt packaging and ran a commercial showing kids taking on heroic personas after drinking them.

Bose, which created the “Star Wars AR Experience” for the Star Wars mobile app featuring an interactive timeline of events from the saga with remixed sound meant to take users even deeper into those events.

GE, which used its partnership with the movie to run the “Force of Innovation” campaign where its appliances are touted as being “light years” ahead of the competition, a message communicated via commercials showing a young girl using them to cook, talk with others and more.

McDonald’s, which added movie-related toys to its Happy Meals, with each figure offering a holographic look at another character.

General Mills, which once again rolled out Star Wars-branded cereals and put movie tattoos in boxes of other products, an effort supported by commercials like this.

Levi’s, which debuted the “Star Wars X Levi’s Collection” of apparel featuring characters and images from the entire saga.

eBay, which offered the exclusive “Star Wars Families” photography project documenting the importance of family in making Star Wars such a cultural phenomenon. 

Geico also created an ad that put animals into starfighter cockpits for the famous trench run scene from A New Hope.

The NBA hosted “Star Wars Nights” at 17 stadiums that included giveaways, costume contests and more. Also on the sports front was a long-form ESPN commercial narrated by Williams that aired during Monday Night Football to showcase a hero rising during the game and the movie.

Final Months of the Campaign

This movie wasn’t the specific focus, but Disney’s opening of Galaxy’s Edge, a Star Wars-themed part of Disneyland and later Walt Disney World, certainly contributed to the publicity cycle significantly. That was especially true given the park drew so heavily from the new movies for its look and feel. In October it was revealed the long-running Star Tours ride would receive a movie-themed update.

The release of the trailer for the second season of the animated “Resistance” came with the news that the show would end after that season but would lead into the story in The Rise of Skywalker.

Target revealed a deal with Disney in August that included the retailer creating themed sections in dozens of their stores specifically for merchandise related to all Disney’s properties, including this movie and others.

September brought with it two big moments that weren’t directly connected to this film, but did speak to Disney’s management of the Star Wars franchise as a whole. One was the release of Bob Iger’s memoir, including comments about how George Lucas reacted poorly when he realized the studio was not following the story outlines he offered when it purchased Lucasfilm and how Iger admitted it oversaturated the market with Star Wars films in a short period. The other was the announcement Marvel Studios producer Kevin Feige is developing a new movie, though what that project is and when it might be seen remain unknown.

Later in the month StarWars.com hosted a live stream unveiling new toys and other products from the movie and other upcoming Star Wars projects that included appearances by members of the cast. Those products were slated for release on “Triple Force Friday” in early October, with events and promotions happening at Amazon.com, Walmart, Disney Stores and other retailers to create a massive one-day shopping occasion.

There were a number of books planned under the “Journey to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” umbrella that, appropriately, filled in some of the story gaps between The Last Jedi and this film. Disney Books hosted a panel discussion about those books at New York Comic Con in early October.

At the same time the movie’s campaign was ramping up, the Star Wars brand as a whole continued getting Disney’s attention, with it positioned as a major element of the Disney+ streaming service that launched in November. Many of the movies and TV shows were available at launch, along with the original series The Mandalorian.

The Star Wars “Force For Change” charity campaign returned with a contest encouraging fans to design their own droid. The contest, a partnership FIRST, promised the winner would have their creation included in a future Star Wars project. A promotional video featured Ridley, Boyega and Isaac.

When tickets went on sale in mid-October a variety of promotions and collectible items available only at select theaters for a limited time were announced, including exclusive artwork and more. Ticket sales quickly exceeded records set by previous entries in the series, according to Atom Tickets. Imax shared an exclusive promotion reminding audiences tickets were now available.

Characters and ships from the movie were inserted into the popular video game Fortnite, with Abrams himself appearing as an avatar in the game last week to unveil exclusive new footage for gamers. Star Wars Battlefront 2 also got a movie-themed upgrade, adding locations and characters inspired by the story.

Movie-themed reactions and AR effects were added to Facebook Messenger. Facebook was also where an exclusive clip debuted showing Kylo descending into a dark temple where he hears the voices of Palpatine, Supreme Leader Snoke and, notably, his grandfather Darth Vader.

Amazon released an exclusive featurette with new footage that had the cast and crew talking about the epic scale of this finale.

TV Advertising

Television promotions began in late November, about a month out from the film’s release. The first spot, appropriately titled “End,” focuses on how this is the finale of the saga, something that’s conveyed by using the emotional C-3PO scene from the trailer along with other dialogue over footage we’ve mostly seen before. The “Fate” of the heroes is communicated in the second commercial.

Subsequent commercials emphasized the climactic duel between good and evil, that the ending of the story is a moment to celebrate, that there was massive adventure to be had and that despite the ending the story would go on forever.

A key scene from the trailers with the heroes being pursued by First Order Stormtroopers — including ones that now fly — was shown in the first clip released at the end of November. At the same time a “Special Look” came out that traced the history and cultural impact of the entire franchise.

Featurettes released beginning in late November included looks at the evolution of Stormtrooper design over the years leading up to the new Sith Troopers in this film, a look back at behind the scenes footage from the entire saga and the important role the friendships between the members of the cast have played in telling the story.

Imax released a promotional video encouraging people to buy tickets for the large-format screenings, including appeals from Anthony Daniels and Boyega. Dolby’s video showcased how it has been a part of the Star Wars experience since the beginning, encouraging fans to buy tickets in its Atmos and other premium formats.

A live streamed Q&A with the cast and filmmakers from earlier this month focused on how excited everyone was to be part of the saga, especially here at the ending.

Abrams, Kennedy and the core cast appeared at Comic Con Experience in Sao Paulo to share insights into the film and show off a bit of footage and talk about producing the final chapter.

Disney made headlines when, as it and 20th Century Fox in the past have done for previous films in the series, it screened the movie in advance for a die-hard fan not expected to live to release date.

The countdown to release kicked off last week with a commercial that cleverly uses the “IX Days” title to make it clear the epic finale was coming soon.

Verizon sponsored the live stream of the movie’s red carpet premiere earlier this week to promote its 5G wireless service.

One of the final TV commercials, “Secret,” offers a hint that a major question from the series might finally be resolved, with Kylo telling Rey “I know the rest of your story.”

Overall

There is a lot going on in the campaign, but a few dominant themes are clear throughout Disney’s extensive marketing of the film.

+ End of the line: From the first moment of the campaign it’s been clear that this is the final moment, the one that the previous eight movies in the Saga have been building toward. This is the culmination of every moment since Qui-Gon found Anakin on Tatooine. It’s a message that’s reinforced in most all the featurettes, TV commercials and other materials in an effort to position the movie as the Ultimate Event, a Must See that can’t be missed on opening weekend if you want to experience the payoff of a story you’ve been following for as many as four decades.

+ Rey's mystery. The question of Rey’s parentage has been a constant throughout the Sequel Trilogy, starting when we met her as a scrap collector on Jakku. The Last Jedi dismissed speculation by claiming they were “nobody,” having sold her into servitude to feed their addictions. Such casual (but immensely interesting) disconnecting of her from the Skywalker lineage didn’t sit well with some fans and Abrams has claimed that while he isn’t retconning Johnson’s story, the complete picture has yet to be seen. That final TV spot with Kylo hinting he knows more about her is designed to promise disgruntled fans a more satisfactory answer may be coming.

+ Emotional journey. It’s readily apparent throughout the campaign that this is going to be an emotional roller coaster the audience is taken on. Carrie Fisher providing the “...always” at the end of the trailer, C-3PO taking a last look at his friends, Rey’s obvious struggles to reconcile the feelings within her — it all points to lots of tears as well as lots of excitement. Even the moments of pure adventure come with a tinge of sadness as we realize the heroes have their backs against a wall after the Resistance was all but wiped out at the end of The Last Jedi.

+ Handle with care: This is also the first Star Wars movie to come out since Disney revealed it would be taking a break from the series — at least on the big screen — after this conclusion (at least until 2022). The studio wants to leave audiences on a positive note, assured that their beloved universe remains in good hands when projects still being developed are brought to fruition.

The Rise of Skywalker faces immense pressure from fans who worry the countless hours they’ve invested in the story ends on a satisfying note. There’s almost no way it accomplishes that for everyone, but the marketing has worked hard to assuage fears by constantly making connections to the earlier movies, especially the Original Trilogy.