Analysis: In the ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ unveiling, 1977 meets 2015


A photo from the opening of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” in 1977 at the old Mann Chinese Theatre in Hollywood shows swarms of fans waiting to enter. The image is fascinating, not only taking us back to a time before the world ever knew “Star Wars” but also conjuring thoughts of what it might have been like to be there at the creation.

What the photo doesn’t suggest is a national frenzy. Though there was certainly a crowd at the opening, little was known about the movie from the young Lucas, and days and weeks passed before most people would find out about Luke Skywalker and lightsabers and all the rest, let alone turn it into a cultural phenomenon. Only about 40 theaters across the country initially screened the movie. When consumers finally began flocking to it, they learned for the first time about Han Solo and Darth Vader and the Millennium Falcon, not quite believing what they were seeing.

FULL COVERAGE: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’


The scene at the same site for J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” this week was, needless to say, much different. A long stretch of Hollywood Boulevard was appropriated for a tented party space. Celebrities dressed up as characters. There were twice as many security checks as for the average domestic flight.

Yet Disney sought to take a page from Fox’s 1977 playbook in one key respect: the lack of information heading into the event.

The typical big-budget sequel these days follows a well-choreographed set of moves. The trade press ferrets out much of the key log-line information. Numerous trailers begin spelling out the action. Screenings for junket press and critics begin to leak out more info.

By the time a premiere happens, there isn’t a lot of material information that remains undisclosed, the event less a grand unveiling than an inevitable confirmation. Sure, the quality of a film may not be widely known, but the shape of it largely is, at least to those motivated enough to seek it out.

Not so for “The Force Awakens.” There was, for all the marketing bombast, a rare absence of actual information. Shooting leaks on this film were almost nonexistent. Not a single member of the media had seen the film (or confessed to it, anyway). By one unofficial count, about six minutes of trailer time were released, about half the usual amount. The key facts about most main characters were unknown.

On screen, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is filled with nostalgia for the first trilogy, whether with its individual scenes or larger themes. The studio’s marketing department, it turns out, was jumping into its own wayback machine — taking a 2015 movie and employing the reticence of 1977, when most people knew little more than what they saw in the odd poster or trailer.

Part of the motivation for this comes from Abrams himself. The director and his collaborators are known for embracing the idea of the mystery box and often veer toward the secretive, even releasing pages to cast on a need-to-know basis. But the strategy has also been part of a larger studio plan.

Disney has danced a delicate two-step on “The Force Awakens” — to seed as much interest as possible while telling as little as possible, on the assumption that the name alone is enough to fill seats. And so the information could come at 1977 levels. Without the safety valve of Internet discussion, interest, which was already as high as for any franchise in recent memory, began to surge even more.

On Monday, it all burst forth. Except that it all burst forth not into 1977 but 2015, when the “Star Wars” universe is a) already extremely well known and devoutly studied and b) the fruits of that study can zap around the world, entering the vortex of online reactions and counter-reactions that it had avoided for long.

And so information that would have been doled out, reacted to, made peace with, then debated anew over months all came out and went through that process within hours, like some kind of movie-marketing particle accelerator.

Breathless positivity and plot hints were reverberating all around. When Patton Oswalt tweeted, “Without spoiling it, I can say that #StarWarsForceAwakens has the BEST final shot of any Star Wars film. Wow,” the tweet was “liked” thousands of times, many of the likers wanting to know just what it was that was so wow-worthy.

Meanwhile, negativity, even of the mild sort, became a fulcrum of online obsession. The influential blogger Devin Faraci, for example, left the theater and tweeted: “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is ok. I know it’s poetry, I know it rhymes, but does every line have to rhyme with the last poem?”

And, of course, the reviews coming out at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday will ensure that every plot point is scalpeled, dissected and analyzed before the first consumer ever steps into a theater.

This is all fine from Disney’s standpoint, since no information or reaction can change the movie’s box-office trajectory. At this point, spoilers — or even lukewarm sentiments — are not going to stop anyone from buying tickets.

Whether this was all a good way for a consumer to experience the release of a movie is a more complicated question. There are those — Abrams is among them —who would argue that less is more in a culture that is long past the point of trailers giving away the whole movie (these days, blogs and pre-release coverage do that). In such a world, an ounce of mystery is worth a pound of goodness.

Of course, what the holdback strategy has done in this case, what it inevitably will do in 2015, is not so much preserve the pre-release mystery as reveal it all at once. It’s not that most people won’t know much when they enter a theater to see “The Force Awakens” this weekend, learning of characters and major developments for the first time, “New Hope”-style. They’ll know — they’ll just have found it all out in a rush a few days before. Disney didn’t create a more mysterious moviegoing experience. It just drove a lot of pre-release traffic to entertainment websites.

In fact, it’s not even clear that we ever truly had a desire not to know, judging by the widespread online inquiries Monday. Interest in a phenomenon like “Star Wars” operates on two almost-opposite levels in our current moment: There’s a craving to be surprised but a need to find out. Curiosity and mystery duke it out in the antipodal filmgoer mind. And with so much information available, the outcome of that battle is rarely in doubt, though that hasn’t stopped weapons from being furnished or star pleas from being made.

In an era when old-fashioned movie unveilings are rare, Disney tried to create one. But the world is a new-fashioned place, and the reactions could only follow in kind. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has been an experiment in how a studio can turn back the clock — in several ways, actually, but particularly when it comes to pre-release information. If it tries really hard, it can. Until it can’t. Time, and Twitter, always win.


‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’: A recap of the world premiere from celebrity cosplay on the red carpet to the first reactions

The women of ‘Star Wars’ speak out about their new Empire

J.J. Abrams on going old school and how ‘Star Wars’ differs from ‘Star Trek’

How ‘Star Wars’ could become Disney’s next cash cow