If you speak to any child who grew up with the Star Wars movies, there's an indescribable emotion around this phenomenon that took over our lives. But, why was it so big? The culmination of the merchandising, sponsorships and marketing undoubtedly played a huge part in the success of the franchise. It was the merchandising in particular that was taken to extremes, with clothing, shoes, records, food, tooth brushes, lunch boxes -- you name it, there was a product partner for everything. I remember having bedding, curtains and even wallpaper (which my parents actually never got round to putting up for me). This film marked the start of a complete transformation as to the way movies were marketed, paving the way for how films are promoted today.
A new level of marketing and branding
Star Wars was a global sensation. It's often argued that the success of the franchise, was particularly due to this new level of marketing and branding. But, for me personally, the hype was definitely fuelled by the films themselves and not vice versa, as can be the case today (err, the Lego Movie). If you think back to when you saw the film for the first time (this was before the days of excessive CGI), you'll remember that the special effects were mesmerising. This was a new universe filled with amazing space ships, weird and wonderful aliens, lovable robots, epic battles with light sabres, magic religions, good vs evil... all of which is mind blowing stuff for a child. The merchandise just brought new ways for fans to be close to the films they already adored. This quirky new film, with special effects was something that the audience had never seen before. Charles Lippincott, Vice-President of advertising, publicity, promotion and merchandising of the film, explained that "the word-of-mouth buzz kept it alive."
The toy-verse was a big part of the attraction
For me, as a child at the time, the toys were definitely the biggest fuel for my passion. The scale of the toy-verse is what separated Star Wars from other science fiction or action franchises. By the time Return of the Jedi was released, there were a 100 figures available. Almost every single character and extra from the films were available to buy in 4 inch figure form, as well as in many other forms, shapes and sizes. Every spaceship, vehicle and piece of Empire or Rebel equipment had also been turned into toy form - it meant you could totally recreate the world we were obsessed with.
I remember the isles filled with the carded figures at the local Zodiac (a popular toy shop at the time). Like most fans I was obsessed and wanted to collect them all - this complete compulsion was part of the attraction. Christmas was always the time when every child dreamed of getting the Millennium Falcon or AT-AT Walker (one of the more expensive toys). I can remember being bitterly disappointed one year, as although I was hoping for the Millennium Falcon, I got Slave-1 (that's Boba Fett's space ship), which I've since come to realise was actually the coolest space ship ever invented.
Is 'more' the answer to growing the hype?
I've already seen that the new sequel may be on track to exceed the product merchandising of the original. Disney seem intent on maximising on brand partnerships and movie tie-ins - Google even let you 'light side' or 'dark side' your apps. Today, there's definitely the added digital dimension, as well as the other spin off TV series (I'm particularly enjoying Star Wars Rebels), so is 'more' the answer to growing the hype? In a recent interview with The Drum, Lippincott suggested that there is now an imbalance, claiming "Merchandise and theme parks can be more lucrative than movies." This makes you wonder if the merchandise being used to promote the movie or, is the movie an effort to promote the merchandise?
Interestingly, fans of the original had to wait years until we could see the movies again at home. Home releases and terrestrial viewing were nowhere near as rapid as they are today, so I'd hypothesise it helped the exclusivity of the films in the early years and the sense of something 'special', which is lost today with such short purchase cycles post cinema release. Star Wars didn't air on UK television until October 1982 (5 years after cinema release) and it was only available to buy in 1982 as well, if you owned a VHS, Betamax or Laserdisc! That's why the toys, merchandise and memorabilia were so popular, it was the only way to get close to the films we adored.
In looking for learnings from the past success, perhaps 'less' is the answer? But, somehow I don't think that's part of Disney's master plan. In the age of digital, combined with promotion, merchandise and memorabilia the Star Wars hype is set to continue - to be honest, if the films are great, then who cares if 'less is more'!