The much anticipated release of the latest Star Wars episode — which could end up the highest grossing movie in history—is entitled “The Force Awakens,” a neat encapsulation of fans' fervent (last) hope that the franchise can be saved from its poorly received most recent prequel trilogy.
And retailers are hoping the movie awakens a force in sales. The good news for them is that several forces have aligned, from the right timing to the fervor of fans, to boost the movie’s potential to help their bottom lines —just in time for the holidays.
Fans are really, really ready
The Force was strong in Star Wars from the very beginning; it was a groundbreaking fantasy trilogy launched in the seventies by the visionary George Lucas that included story arcs and special effects aided less by technology than by creativity and the likes of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop.
The movie was a retail sensation even then; Star Wars-themed Halloween costumes sold out almost immediately after they became available, for example. Indeed, Star Wars merchandise never went away, with “fanboys” writing their own chapters and sequels and toy light sabers of varying quality always available in stores.
But the most recent trilogy, all prequels, were largely a disappointment, panned by film critics but most importantly also by ardent fans.
That is all helping making "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which will be released in December, one of the most — if not the most — highly anticipated films of all time.
And that kind of hype and level of anticipation can only help retailers.
Disney’s in charge now
While there was some apprehension about the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012 for $4 billion, many film buffs and Star Wars aficionados alike saw the potential in the deal. The company has maintained Walt Disney’s own affection for story to a great extent. And with Hollywood (and sci-fi) favorite J.J. Abrams directing the film, most see the latest chapter as being in good hands.
For retailers, though, it’s Disney’s immense merchandising prowess that is the real boon of the exchange. The company has been selling and distributing action figures, apparel, books, magazines, collectibles, and more for decades; its trademarking, manufacturing, marketing, and distribution cogs are all nicely moving parts in a well-oiled machine. In 2014, Disney earned an estimated $2.54 billion in licensing and publishing revenue, out of $45.2 billion in total retail sales, from its licensed products.
For “The Force Awakens,” the merchandise juggernaut is actually part and parcel of Disney’s preview season leading up to release day, a way to stoke the anticipation. It’s impossible to know how many companies have licensed Disney’s official Star Wars trademark, but Wired magazine says it ranges from the world’s largest toy companies to smaller artisans. “The Force Awakens” could generate some $5 billion in consumer merchandise sales in its first year of release, according to Macquarie Securities analyst Tim Nolle, with much of that going to retailers.
“This is one of the biggest and most sought-after licenses out there,” LA jewelry designer Brandon Schoolhouse, aka Han Cholo, told Wired. “This is the Holy Grail of sci-fi and culture.”
Right, the timing is
All of this is ramping up just in time for the holidays, a time of year that has been making retailers nervous for years now.
Indeed, while Target has had Star Wars merchandise on shelves all summer, the licensed “Force Awakens” toys and other goodies went on sale Sept. 4 — and Target, Wal-Mart, Amazon, and Toys 'R' Us, to name a few, went all out.
Target, for example, launched a “Share the Force” website where fans can upload “Star Wars” memories to be archived at Lucasfilm for all time. And e-retail giant Amazon, no surprise, has dedicated a storefront to it. Several retailers opened specially at midnight for the merch release.
Thanks to technology, Star Wars toys today are a far cry from the light sabers of the eighties. The same holds true for marketing tools. That Target Lucasfilm archive project, for example, almost puts the original movies’ special effects to shame, though those were cutting edge at the time of course.
The film’s new droid hero, BB-8, has already captured hearts and may be the droid many people are looking for. BB-8 promises to be a popular new Star Wars item and is available for sale in many iterations, including a fairly sophisticated app-enabled gizmo from Sphero that is available through Apple, Best Buy, and Sphero as one of Disney’s most expensive tie-ins.
But it’s not just that the toys are amazing or that the holidays are around the corner or even that "The Force Awakens" will be in theaters just before Christmas. It’s also that social media is now a force of its own. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook happen to be ideal outlets for both fans and marketers — and that can make a retailer’s job as smooth as the surface of a neutron star.