The marketing is strong in this one.
For Star Wars fans the world over, Christmas comes a week early this year, when Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens on December 18. The new film is set about 30 years after 1983’s Return of the Jedi, and there’s reason for cautious optimism–previews are promising, and the movie features hot new stars like Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Adam Driver, and Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth!), along with original Star Wars trilogy cast members Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill, among others.
But of course Star Wars is, and always has been, about much more than movies–it’s a few galaxies’ worth of merchandise for kids and collectors. Just how big is this market? Analysts predict that consumers could spend as much as $5 billion on Star Wars-related merchandise over the next year, which would net Disney about $500 million in licensing and retail revenue. Therein lies the genius of Force Friday, today’s hugely hyped retail holiday, on which Alderaan Cruiser-loads of Force Awakens-related products are being unveiled and launched into the capitalist cosmos to build up the mania around the movie and its merch. And even the day had its own build: Disney, which owns the licensing rights to the new film, hosted an 18-hour unboxing event on YouTube for toys and collectibles that jumped to 15 cities around the world before settling in L.A. ahead of midnight shopping events last night. (And if last night’s retail fever is any indication, all that hyping will result in big sales at stores like Toys “R” Us, Walmart, and Target.)
“There hasn’t been anything new since the last prequel films,” says Eric Moro, VP of programming at Wikia, which hosts the extremely active Star Wars wiki Wookieepedia. Since the announcement of The Force Awakens in 2012, that site has been a hub of round-the-clock activity, documenting every tiny piece of news and revelation to fill in characters, plot points, and other details of the now-seven-episode epic. “The frenzy around this direct sequel to the original trilogy, which is so beloved, is so crazy. It’s about chronicling the lore, figuring out how everything ties together–and then of course, there are the collectors, the guys that definitely want to be sure that they have one of everything, and it has a special place on their bookshelves, and it’s in the packaging.”
According to Moro, based on Wookieepedia activity, the hottest items will likely be those related to Kylo Ren, the film’s new big baddie played by Adam Driver, so far best known for his lovably sociopathic work on Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls.
“He’s essentially going to be the new Darth Vader,” says Moro. “The activity on Kylo Ren’s page right now is blowing away any other page on Wookiepedia. Just last week alone, [Director] J.J. Abrams did a piece with Empire, and he released just a little bit of information about how that character came to his name, and why it’s not a traditional ‘Darth’ something, and that immediately popped the page.”
While Kylo Ren is getting attention for his novelty, other Force Friday releases are banking on the power of nostalgia. The Topps trading card company is releasing a set of Topps Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens cards that encompass all six previous films, including cards modeled after Topps’s original 1977 cards released for the first movie.
“They have a long history of doing these with the Star Wars guys, all the way back to A New Hope,” says Moro. “They’re going to be releasing them in that traditional style and look and format, so there’s some buzz around that.”
On the flip side, for digital-native kids who were but wee little Jedis when the last Star Wars film came out in 2005, a Collector’s Edition nabi tablet comes loaded up with custom franchise sound effects, wallpapers, and themed bumpers, and even comes in two different “Dark Side” and “Light Side” editions.
But Force Friday isn’t all about toys and tech–it will also fill some important narrative holes with the release of five canonical novels, including Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig, which fills in the events between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. The excitement around the novels that Moro has witnessed in the Star Wars fan community comes by way of a brilliant move by Disney to declare that every Star Wars-related story released moving forward is within the continuity of the overall narrative. In other words, it’s all canon.
While Star Wars products will continue to roll out for the rest of the year, the Force Friday blitz is likely to supercharge retail activity, and could help make thematic sales holidays much more of a thing. It worked for Amazon, after all.