The initial box office take of Star Wars: The Force Awakens has reached galactic proportions: $529 million worldwide with about half of it from the U.S. and Canada alone. Besides intense nostalgia for the sci-fi series and the appearance of the beloved original cast, the film’s success has been propelled by Walt Disney Co.’s careful — and clever — marketing strategy, according to Wharton marketing professor Jehoshua Eliashberg. The company’s synergistic marketing and distribution strategies were keys to the film’s widespread impact, lessons that other companies can adopt for their own products, he says. Knowledge at Wharton spoke to Eliashberg about Disney’s marketing strategy for Star Wars.
An edited version of the conversation appears below.
Knowledge at Wharton: What factors do you think made the latest Star Wars film such a big hit? Is it just nostalgia?
Josh Eliashberg: It’s nostalgia, it’s very effective marketing on Disney’s part, and it’s also very good product development. It has a story line which is very interesting. It is difficult to market movies when the story line doesn’t support the goodness of the product. That’s not the case here.
I thought Disney did a great job and this is a lesson that other industries, other companies can learn. They did a very good job in synergizing the different divisions. I’ll give you an example. Disney owns ABC and before the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens [came out], the anchors at ABC came to ‘Good Morning America’ dressed up as Star Wars characters. That’s a nice synergy between your TV and your studio divisions.
Disney also did a good job in terms of branding the movie. First, [they] reminded audiences about the previous six Star Wars movies … by making these movies available on streaming services. [Another] nice example of branding was to bring toys to the marketplace before the movie was actually available.
“It’s nostalgia, it’s very effective marketing on Disney’s part, and it’s also very good product development.”
The trailers that they used were … what’s called peering trailers. They got people very interested in the movie but they did not disclose much of the content and the storyline, so they were very creative in generating these teaser trailers that got people to the movie theatres. They also made the Thursday showings around the country … like a [special] event. That was an effective element of the strategic marketing that Disney should be commended for.
Knowledge at Wharton: How does the current Star Wars movie compare to what Lucasfilm did with the prequels and to other blockbuster movies such as Jurassic World, the Harry Potter series, and from way back, Avatar?
Eliashberg: The difference is in the storyline, visual effects and special effects that have been used here in this movie and … in terms of marketing the movie. I don’t think that Avatar, for instance, or Jurassic Park, has received as much creative marketing as this movie, and again, I refer back to what I said earlier in terms of merchandising, trial deliveries of the movie in terms of synergizing across your different divisions, etc.
Knowledge at Wharton: What can other companies learn from Disney’s distribution and marketing strategies? How do you translate this to other products and services?
Eliashberg: It’s really about branding, managing your brand effectively. It’s about synergizing. Many companies have different divisions that operate in silos and they don’t really collaborate with one another and here is an example, a case study, where Disney made different divisions collaborate and then complement each other’s marketing. It’s also about creating new products in a timely manner.
Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think about Disney leveraging the ecosystem of licensing and in particular signing up non-traditional partners such as Cover Girl cosmetics and Zales jewelry, among others?
Eliashberg: That’s another manifestation of creative and effective marketing. Typically, the merchandising, the toys — these things come after the movie. In this case, Disney preceded with the merchandise, made them available, advertised and showed them before the release of the movie so they came as promotion for the movie as opposed to the more traditional way where the merchandise comes later as a supplementary income.
One more point I want to mention that may also indicate the difference between Disney and other studios, or lessons that can be learned from Disney: This movie was made available both in 3D and 2D formats, which was a clever decision on Disney’s part. I haven’t seen the data yet but I would not be surprised if many people came to the theatre, they saw that the 3D [version] was sold out so they went to watch the movie in a traditional 2D format and later on they’ll come back to watch it again in 3D.
So [viewers] getting the same product in two different formats that enhance each other is another feature of Disney’s marketing strategy that we did not see in previous movies.
“They were very creative in generating these teaser trailers that also got people to the movie theatres.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You have studied theatrical releases. What can you say about that aspect of Disney’s strategy?
Eliashberg: The strategy was to release the movie in many theatres … and simultaneously in many countries. China was not included, unfortunately for them, but the movie opened in what’s called day and date [or concurrent release] in many countries. So it became like a global event. Plus, making the movie available in two different formats — 2D, 3D — and making sure that there are enough showings in the theatres for both formats, is a big indication of strategic marketing.
Knowledge at Wharton: What will the success of Star Wars’ marketing and distribution strategy mean for the way in which movies are made and distributed in the future? Does it set the bar high for other blockbusters?
Eliashberg: Yes. My guess is that will encourage more studios to move in the direction of another big blockbuster. Unfortunately, this will lead to a reduction in independent-type movies with lower budgets — movies that tend to get Academy Award nominations. I think the Star Wars effect will have a negative impact on those types of movies.
I’m talking about movies such as Bridge of Spies or Brooklyn or Spotlight. These are movies that have their own audience but they’ll never be able to get the income and generate [the kind of] ticket sales for the studios as Star Wars. I’m worried … that the studios will stay away from those types of independent movies just because of the Star Wars effect.
Knowledge at Wharton: What then would be an appropriate strategy for independent filmmakers? What advice would you give those kinds of creative filmmakers who cannot compete with the Star Wars effect, as you call it?
“The strategy was to release the movie in many theatres … and simultaneously in many countries. … So it became like a global event.”
Eliashberg: They will have to find alternative outlets. So they will have to go to Netflix, to Amazon, to streaming services in order to get their product available to audiences. It will be very tough for them to go with a traditional channel, which is making the product available in movie theatres, simply because of the Star Wars effect.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you think that Disney is risking consumer overload of Star Wars? It’s practically everywhere: the toys, the merchandise, mentions, etc.
Eliashberg: I don’t think so. There is a huge demand for the merchandise, and like I said, they [released the movie] simultaneously, so people kind of look at what’s happening in other countries and this encourages more people to demand this merchandise because they view it as a global event. I don’t see much risk of oversaturation.