For the third time in as many years, Disney/Lucasfilm are bringing Star Wars to theaters just in time for the holidays. After successfully reintroducing the franchise with 2015’s The Force Awakens, we took a detour away from the core “Saga” that has been the focus of the movies to date in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Now we’re back to the story of the Jedi and the fight against the powers of darkness in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The story picks up right where The Force Awakens left off, as Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds the self-exiled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who she hopes will help her learn who she is and what her destiny might be. Meanwhile, The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) continues its fight against the ascendant First Order, ruled by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) and Finn (John Boyega) along with Chewbacca and a bunch of porgs keep fighting the good fight while Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) continues to emote across the entire galaxy while trying not to be the Diet Coke of evil.
With so much Star Wars hype and promotion over the last three years, the franchise lately has never seemed far out of reach. To sell The Last Jedi effectively and forcefully, Disney has worked hard to make sure the campaign sells a compelling and unique product to the audience.
The first poster is kind of fantastic. On one half is the face of Luke Skywalker, looking intensely at the camera and signaling that he has a much bigger role in this story. On the other side is a mask-less Kylo Ren, showing everyone he’s still going to be acting all emo and slightly evil in this chapter. They’re split but the extended lightsaber being held at the bottom by Rey, showing that she’s coming into her destiny and will get to play with more cool toys this time around.
A whole series of posters was released around D23 that showed many of the main characters decked in blood red robes or jackets. Their faces, while partially obscured, all convey some level of pensive worry and those you’d expect to be carrying lightsabers are doing so.
The poster released at the same time as the second trailer continues the foreshadowing of dark times. The same blood red color scheme shown on the character posters is used, but this time the whole cast is shown together. Luke hovers in the background (in a similar manner Vader does on many of the previous movies’ posters) while Rey, Kylo, Leia, Finn, Poe and the rest are arrayed in front of him. Various ships are coming or going, hinting at the battles that will take place in the story.
A special poster was created for select AMC IMAX screenings that featured original artwork showing Luke observing from afar as Rey trains with her lightsaber, a scene we’ve seen in the trailers. A poster promoting Dolby Cinema presentations took a slightly artistic approach that had all the characters arranged in a way that evoked the posters for the original trilogy, with different groups in different areas, vehicles flying or walking into frame and Luke’s massive face looming over everything. An IMAX one-sheet had another red stripe running down the middle and all the characters within that, Rey sporting the same red cloak she has in her solo poster.
A whole series of “pop” posters came out just a couple weeks before release, showing characters, ships, and equipment from the story. So we got new looks at old favorites like R2-D2, BB-8, and the Millennium Falcon as well as good looks at new additions like Kylo Ren’s fighter, a porg and more.
The teaser trailer starts out with a shock, just like that of The Force Awakens’ first spot. This time, though, it’s Rey gasping for air. We hear Luke tell her to “breathe” and to “reach out” before we see stones levitating off the ground. She talks about seeing light and darkness as we see shots of war rooms, broken helmets and a mysterious dusty book, along with a far-off shot of her wielding a lightsaber. Going from there is a collection of quick shots of fighters skimming the surface, Kylo Ren looking menacing, Finn being transported in some sort of medical capsule, Poe’s X-Wing blowing up again and more, all set to dramatic music. It ends with Luke intoning that the one thing he knows is that “It’s time for the Jedi to end,” which is pretty ominous.
This certainly looks darker than TFA, with hints that the Dark Side is going to play a large role and that we’re going to get a crash course in Jedi mythology along with the space battles and other action. All our favorite characters from TFA are checked in on here and it sets the tone for a story that doesn’t appear to be uplifting.
The theatrical trailer, which Johnson encouraged fans to skip if they were so inclined and which was introduced by a contingent of First Order Stormtroopers during “Monday Night Football,” presents a very dark story. Snoke narrates as he talks about what the untapped potential he saw in someone that we’re meant to think is Kylo Ren but which may not be. That’s because what comes next is footage of Luke training Rey and finding that the extent of her powers scares him to a level he’s wholly uncomfortable with. Kylo is still on the dark path he started down, presumably lining up to kill his own mother as part of a major space battle. Poe talks about burning the First Order down and Finn takes on Phasma. Luke warns someone that it’s all going to end badly and it ends with Rey apparently turning to Kylo to help her learn about her abilities and her place in the world.
Yeah, it’s pretty dark. There’s death, dire warnings and the promise of more bad things to come throughout the trailer. It’s not the bright, hopeful story that was being sold in the campaign for The Force Awakens, though there’s sure to be some misdirection that’s used here to send fans down the wrong emotional trails so the movie can offer some surprises. There are also Porgs, crystalline wolves and other visual treats to enjoy.
Online and Social
There are two web presences related to the movie that both play their own role in its marketing.
The first is the page on StarWars.com that features the same layout and information as the pages for the other eight films in the series. There you’ll find blog posts about the movie, posters, the “Databank” of characters, aliens and vehicles, a photo gallery and links to the Star Wars profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social platforms.
Linked on that page is what’s labeled the official theatrical site for this movie. That opens with music and footage from the trailer playing in full-screen on the page with a “Get Tickets” button in the upper left.
In the upper right is a hamburger-style content menu the starts with “Videos,” which is where you’ll find both of the trailers as well as a behind the scenes featurette on production. A similar “Gallery” had just 10 production stills and the “Story” section contains the barest of plot overviews.
That may not seem like a lot, but considering these are just the official sources and there are countless fan sites with similar information, that’s all it needs to be.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
The first TV spot hit about six weeks out from release and continued the theme begun in the trailers of this being a dark entry in the franchise. There’s more dire intonations from Kylo Ren, additional shots of a very angry-looking Rey and a confrontation between Finn and Phasma. Notably in that first commercial was the first footage of Luke stepping into the Falcon’s cockpit, his return to the ship that dominated so much of his story.
Once again, just as with The Force Awakens a couple years ago, Disney launched “Force Friday” in early September, making a big push out of releasing toys and other consumer products. This time, though, that effort included a big AR activation that unlocked new characters at different locations over the course of three days that strengthened the connection with the brand and made toy shopping into a multimedia event. That was supported by commercials and other paid promotion from Target and a handful of other retail partners. The AR efforts were extended to other locations around the world where fans would be able to view a Star Destroyer and a full battalion of TIE Fighters.
A number of retailers ran their own paid ads for that event to drive awareness and push people to visit stores to be among the first to get the latest goodies.
There were six core brands that were recruited as promotional partners:
- Christian Louboutin, which designed an exclusive line of movie-themed shoes focusing on the female heroes in the film. Those shoes were not on sale but auctioned off to benefit the Force for Change charity initiative.
- General Mills, which put movie branding on a number of its cereals and other products along with toys in packages and exclusive content within the Star Wars mobile app that could be unlocked by scanning a code on the packaging. All that was supported with a paid ad campaign on TV and online that drove people to find out more about those products as well as the movie.
- Nissan, which launched a campaign that included TV and online ads touting the driver-assistance technology it hopes will entice car buyers as well as sending movie-branded accessories to dealerships and sponsoring a droid-repair VR experience. It also customized a number of its cars to look like TIE Fighters and other vehicles which went on display at the company’s exhibition at the Los Angeles Auto Show, a presence that also included X-Wing replicas and the same VR and AR experiences available elsewhere.
- Royal Philips, which created a handful of shavers modeled after various aspects of the characters, vehicles and stories.
- Verizon, which used the movie to promote its network in commercials including BB-8 and other droids in a co-branded spot. Verizon also sponsored the movie’s red-carpet premiere.
- VIZIO, which ran co-branded spots including movie footage to sell the immersive experience it claims as a selling point for its XLED TVs.
Along with those core six companies were others engaging in their own activities:
- Nvidia, which created Star Wars-themed graphics cards featuring colors and designs similar to lightsabers and other elements of the universe.
- Lenovo also did some advertising for its Jedi Challenges AR device that allowed people to play various games and train with a lightsaber. TV spots like this one promoted the device and the company did a bit of media around its release as well.
- National CineMedia promoted the movie through its Noovie pre-show package with a featurette including never-before-seen behind-the-scenes footage.
- rag & bone launched a line of clothes inspired by the whole Star Wars franchise and engaged with the Force for Change philanthropic program run by Lucasfilm. Online ads supported that clothing line.
- Samsung rolled out (sorry) a branded robotic vacuum featuring designs including Darth Vader or a First Order Trooper as well as audio sound effects and voice clips from the movies. The introduction was accompanied by an extended promo spot and other marketing.
- Google introduced AR stickers for the Pixel 2 device that added First Order troopers, porgs, X-Wings and other characters and vehicles to the world.
Some of these efforts, along with other advertising and merchandising, may have been more ridiculous than others, but that’s always been the case with Star Wars promotional partnerships. Those companies along with other licensing partners appeared on Amobee’s list of the top brands associated with Star Wars based on social media conversations.
As soon as tickets went on sale, basically every theater chain promoted the opportunity to make sure you had locked down your screening. IMAX went even further by offering a ton of exclusive items for those who bought that premium experience.
More and more TV spots came out in the last month before release. Most showed the characters fighting and getting ready to fight. Many included one or more hints like those in the trailers that this was going to be a dark chapter in the series, particularly for Rey. Some like this one were also used for social media ads.
Media and Publicity
Things kicked off super-early. Outside of casting announcements and such there was an announcement video showing the beginning of filming, which showed things picking up right where they were left off at the end of TFA. After that the next big push came as part of Star Wars Celebration in 2016 when the cast and crew appeared to talk a little about the story, the characters and spill just enough details to keep fans interested.
Johnson gave a big interview shortly after the release of Rogue One that featured comments about the story, where the characters are in the new movie and lots more.
Of course there was a big pop when the movie’s full title was announced as Star Wars: The Last Jedi, continuing this trilogy’s trend of not including the episode number in the title. After that a look at Rey, Poe and Finn was provided the packaging for the toys coming out on the next “Force Friday” was revealed.
As with The Force Awakens, there was a big push around an Omaze charitable campaign that offered fans a variety of prizes, including the chance to appear in an upcoming Star Wars movie.
The Last Jedi obviously had a substantial presence at this past April’s Star Wars Celebration convention. That’s where the trailer debuted, where a panel brought together Johnson and the primary cast and where fans were introduced to Rose, played by Kelly Marie Tran, who was positioned there as playing a large role in the story. Later on Boyega spoke about the place Finn finds him in during the movie.
Vanity Fair once again came through with a massive feature accompanied by photos from Annie Lebowitz. That feature, which came in one of four exclusive covers, provided first looks at the characters played by Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro and others along with comments from Johnson, Hamill, Ridley and the rest of the cast.
Lots of new information was offered when the cast and crew appeared at Disney’s annual D23 event earlier this year. Or at least the appearance of new information was offered while everyone did their best to not drop too many details. It was there that a behind-the-scenes sizzle reel was released that showed some new stuff along with shots of the cast and others having fun shooting a Star War. After that it was off to San Diego Comic-Con, where props and costumes from the movie were on display.
Even more were shown off at New York Comic-Con later in the year. Also at NYCC was a whole experience that people could visit that recreated the interior of a First Order ship. After a group of people was inside the doors would close, certain people’s faces were shown as “Wanted” posters and Stormtroopers appeared to locate the perpetrators, with more actors playing out a whole escape story.
While promoting other projects the cast kept talking about the movie, with Christie promising an expanded Captain Phasma story and Boyega assuring fans that the late Carrie Fisher gets her due in the movie.
Another massive cover story in Entertainment Weekly offered tons of new photos, details and interviews that everyone spent days pouring over. That included the promise we’d get more Supreme Leader Snoke and his minions, a first look at the adorable little creatures who are taking care of hermit Luke Skywalker, an update on where Finn is in the story, hints at the dynamic between Rey and Luke, more revelations about Del Toro’s mysterious character, hints at what Rey will discover about her family and more assurances that Leia gets her due in Carrie Fisher’s final appearance in the role.
Empire Magazine offered its own big spread on the movie in an issue with a holographic cover and stories that offered new looks at characters and ships along with more additional details. There was a big interview with Johnson where the director talked about the process that lead to him accepting the job, the freedom he had to tell the story he wanted and more, including a few story details.
Around the time the second trailer was released there was a feature profile of Riddley where she answered various questions about herself and the movie, including talking about how Fisher prepared her for life in the Star Wars universe. Hamill then got his own feature, where he talked about getting back into the character of Luke and more, territory he couldn’t really go into during the campaign for The Force Awakens because of the nature of that story.
More details were revealed as the press push continued on, including the meaning of Rose’s mysterious necklace.
Disney made waves in the theatrical industry when it announced it would ask for 65% of box-office sales for the movie, at least in its first weeks. While some chains signaled it was causing them to rethink showing it, sitting out Star Wars isn’t a threat most could afford to back up no matter what the deal and Disney has the market power to demand such terms.
The pressure on Johnson and the movie was kicked up several dozen notches when it was announced he had been chosen to oversee an entire new trilogy of films. While the details were sparse, it was stated that these stories would be separate from the Skywalker Saga.
Yet another EW cover story – with four variant covers – offered even more clues and details about the story and characters. There was the Kylo/Rey dynamic, Luke’s emotional return to the Millennium Falcon, an introduction to Dern’s colorful Admiral Holdo, more background on Tran and her career, a dive into the vulptex (the crystal foxes seen in the trailer), teasing of the Luke/Leia family relationship in the story, comments on what’s driving Snoke and more.
Ridley kept up the media appearances showing up on both morning and late night TV to talk about Rey’s journey in her second outing. Boyega also hit the talk shows to show off his dance moves and more, as did Hamill. The whole cast, along with Johnson, showed up on “Kimmel” to answer a few questions and have a bit of fun. Serkis too got his share of interviews like this one where he talked about bringing life to Snoke, who is obviously a much bigger presence in this movie.
Ridley made headlines when, as part of a larger interview, she commented on what she felt was her and Rey’s future in the franchise, insinuating that she’d be done after Episode IX. She later walked that back to clarify that she was only signed on for these three movies and what lay beyond that was up to Disney and Lucasfilm.
While it wasn’t tied specifically to this movie, there was plenty of hype around the announcement of Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire, a VR experience that took players to planets around the Star Wars universe and included a few recognizable characters.
There’s so much good stuff here, all meant to get the adrenaline of Star Wars fans of all ages pumping. Older fans like me will be glad to see Luke back in the spotlight, get all the feels when Leia emerges on screen and experience a familiar rush of excitement when the Falcon zooms past the camera. Newer fans will be excited to keep following Poe, Rey and Finn’s adventures as they take their own place in the history of the franchise. And of course, there are the porgs, who will sell a trillion products featuring their huge, anime-esque eyes and furry flippers.
What’s notable is that while The Last Jedi is certainly being sold a dark chapter, Johnson and others have gone out of their way to stop the comparisons between it and The Empire Strikes Back. Maybe that’s just because most movies fall short by that measure or maybe it’s because there are real, substantive differences that, if fans go in with that expectation, won’t be met. Whatever the case, the parallels are both there and not there depending greatly on your point of view.
Disney has pulled off a fairly massive campaign that’s only slightly scaled back from that of The Force Awakens in about two thirds the time available for that movie. That’s a testament to the power of the company’s marketing machine. It’s no less noteworthy that it did so while still managing to put together a campaign that is both action-packed and full of emotions, which clearly drive the story. Everyone is wrestling with their feelings, from Rey’s conflicted embrace of the Force to Kylo’s dealing with having already killed one parent and ready to do so to the other to Luke’s new dark view of the Jedi’s future and more.
Not only all that, but it’s centered the marketing around the talent responsible for making it. Ridley has been out there leading the charge. Tran is the breakout star of the publicity push. Johnson has seemingly been having the time of his life, enjoying his position as a director not pushed out from his movie as well as the first person since Lucas to both write and direct a Star Wars movie. By not forgetting to focus on the people, the marketing has both the epic feel the franchise is known for and a human touch.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.