The first 'Star Wars' of the social media age and how a trailer sent fan frenzy into hyperspace

In one sense, it was just an ordinary trailer, a 2 1/2-minute sneak peek at a movie that won't hit theaters for two months. It wasn't even the film's first trailer — it was the third.

But when it comes to the "Star Wars" franchise, nothing has ever been ordinary.

When the Walt Disney Co. and Lucasfilm unveiled the final teaser for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" during halftime of the New York Giants-Philadelphia Eagles football game Monday evening, it set off a disturbance in the Force unlike anything Hollywood has seen in years.

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The ensuing clamor among fans wanting to share in the moment and the frenzy of early ticket sales that crashed theater chains' servers was a testament not just to audiences' abiding love for the space-opera series but also to a carefully orchestrated marketing campaign that, with the film's Dec. 18 release date drawing ever nearer, has made the jump to hyperspace, leveraging Disney's entire arsenal of media assets.

Big-budget spectacles are the film industry's bread and butter, of course, with a new one coming down the pike nearly every weekend. But "Star Wars" has long been in a category by itself. What was once an out-of-left-field sci-fi film that drew just a smattering of curious comic-book enthusiasts at the 1976 Comic-Con convention in San Diego has grown over the past four decades into something closer to a national pastime and, for some, almost a quasi-religion.

"The Force Awakens" — which arrives 10 years after the last installment in the series — is the first "Star Wars" film of the social media age, exponentially amplifying and quickening word-of-mouth reactions that, in the franchise's early days, would unfold over days and weeks.

In the first hour after the "Force Awakens" teaser aired, 1.3 million people interacted with it on Facebook, while "Star Wars"-related tweets came at the furious pace of 17,000 per minute, as fans dissected every frame for clues about the film's plot. Meanwhile, viewership for ESPN's "Monday Night Football" spiked heading into halftime, indicating many viewers had tuned in specifically to see the new clip.

The trailer's release was coordinated with the launch of advance ticket sales, and eager fans by the thousands quickly leaped at the chance to lock in seats for the film's first showings. Though such early ticket sales for highly anticipated movies are now standard with major franchises like "The Avengers" and "The Hunger Games," the volume of orders proved overwhelming to an unprecedented degree, causing several sites — including Fandango, the leading online ticket purveyor — to go down. Despite the technical difficulties, AMC Theatres, the second-largest theater chain in the country, sold out more than 1,000 shows nationwide in less than 12 hours.

That the film will reap massive box office returns is undeniable — the only question is how massive.

"When it finishes its run it's going to be one of the biggest movies, if not the biggest, ever to come out of theaters," said Ken Thewes, chief marketing officer for Regal Entertainment Group, which operates the nation's largest theater chain.

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for the box office tracking firm Rentrak, agrees the film could topple records.

"There's never been a $100-million debut in December," he said, "but if you think about it, the top two movies of all time were not summer movies; they were December releases: 'Avatar' and 'Titanic.' "

One might argue that "Star Wars" essentially markets itself, making it possibly the most foolproof film franchise in history. "As long as they stick to the accents of the familiar, you really can't lose," said writer-director Kyle Newman, who made a 2009 comedy about rabid "Star Wars" fans called "Fanboys." "You can't really mess it up even if you tried. Even if someone says the movie is bad, you're still going to see it for yourself — and you'll see it on a big screen and you'll probably see it again." Indeed, despite largely negative reviews, the three "Star Wars" prequels released between 1999 and 2005 earned roughly $2.5 billion collectively at the worldwide box office.

Still, Disney isn't taking any chances with what has quickly become one of its most valuable properties, one that the company is counting on to reap billions of dollars in revenues across all of its divisions, from merchandising to theme parks and beyond.

The marketing campaign behind the new "Star Wars" film has intensified in recent months but it stretches back three years to October 2012, when Disney acquired Lucasfilm from "Star Wars" creator George Lucas in a $4-billion deal. Since then, the goal has been to keep steadily building buzz for the film without revealing too much too early or peaking too soon. Executives at Disney and Lucasfilm declined to discuss their marketing strategy, but Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Iger outlined the challenge in a conference call to discuss quarterly earnings in May.

"We want to be careful that the demand does not create too much in the marketplace too soon," Iger explained, noting that there is an entire generation of young kids who have never seen a "Star Wars" movie in theaters and certain foreign markets, such as China, where the franchise is less well known. "Everything we have done to date has been extremely deliberate, and we have a carefully constructed plan going forward in terms of what we roll out in the marketplace in terms of product and marketing."

In November, Disney released the first short teaser for "The Force Awakens," a clip that revealed virtually nothing about the story but was clearly engineered to reassure fans that the franchise was in the hands of people who fully respected its legacy. "They had the music and the iconic ships — the X-Wing, the Millennium Falcon, the TIE Fighter — and it started to reinvigorate people: 'All right, we're going back to here,' " Newman said. "They were connecting the tissue."

In April, an estimated 60,000 die-hard "Star Wars" aficionados descended on the Anaheim Convention Center for the Lucasfilm-hosted Star Wars Celebration fan gathering, many dressed as their favorite characters. At the convention, "Force Awakens" director J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy unveiled a second, longer trailer for the film that was greeted with rapturous applause. In July, Abrams and Kennedy were on hand at San Diego Comic-Con, along with many of the franchise's new and old cast members, for a "Force Awakens" panel, after which fans were led en masse from the convention hall to a free concert of John Williams' "Star Wars" music under the stars.

Needless to say, this highly coordinated multimedia campaign is a galaxy far, far away from the relatively scrappy marketing push that initially accompanied the original "Star Wars" film. The first unveiling of Lucas' film at the 1976 Comic-Con consisted mainly of a presentation of some pieces of original art and a promotional poster that was handed out to fans who didn't necessarily know quite what to make of it.

"The poster was for sale for $1 — they probably had 1,000 printed but word is maybe 500 or 600 got thrown in the trash," said Cal Burke of McFly's Comics, who was in attendance. "Now they go for thousands."

Still, one thing remains the same as in the early days of the "Star Wars" franchise. Even amid the ever-growing blizzard of trailers, toys and video games, the team behind "The Force Awakens" is hoping to preserve the thrill of discovery that has always been a hallmark of "Star Wars" films, an experience that has become increasingly difficult to come by in today's information-saturated digital world.

"It's rare that we get these moments," Gwendoline Christie, who plays one of the new film's villains, a Stormtrooper leader named Captain Phasma, told The Times recently. "Now in our society we see everything all the time. J.J. and Kathleen are saying, 'Let us surprise you. Let us all have a wonderful Christmas.' There's something blissfully childlike about it."

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

Times staff writers Meredith Woerner, Richard Verrier and Meg James contributed to this report.


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