The annual “Star Wars Celebration” convention took place last weekend, and Disney took the opportunity to delight fans with the first real look at this year’s “Star Wars” movie, “The Last Jedi.”
On Friday, Disney released a teaser trailer for the film, which is due out this Christmas, during a panel that featured cast members Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Mark Hamill, as well as director Rian Johnson. As could easily be guessed, the trailer blew up the Internet as fans began speculating about what the movie might hold when it comes out this holiday season.
Celebration is a pretty exciting event for “Star Wars” fans. It’s a chance for people who really love “Star Wars” to come together and, as the name suggests, celebrate the beloved franchise with other like-minded people. But it’s also an opportunity for Disney to make a massive splash in marketing — and that’s exactly what has happened for the last few years.
This year, the trailer for “The Last Jedi” came with the reveal of the movie’s first poster. Both lit up the Internet. Disney got exactly the advertising push it hoped for by leveraging the cultural phenomenon that is “Star Wars.” At the same time, like the media companies who appear at San Diego International Comic-Con each year, Disney’s participation in Celebration allows it to turn advertising into part of the festivities.
Star Wars Celebration, and “Star Wars” fandom in general, gives Disney both an opportunity and a responsibility. The community surrounding “Star Wars,” and the excitement that comes with it, allows Disney to turn trailer drops and poster reveals not only into events, but gifts to fans waiting for every scrap of new information.
But it also requires Disney to respect its fanbase, because Star Wars Celebration shows that for many people, “Star Wars” isn’t a movie franchise or a series of products to buy and consume. It’s much bigger and more important. To Disney’s credit, it seems the company knows exactly how important “Star Wars” is, and has taken careful steps to engage with fans on equal and respectful footing.
Fanbases as engaged as those for “Star Wars” are a blessing — something every company aspires to have. But they also change the relationship between creators and the people who consume their creations. Fans want to be a part of the conversation, and they view their emotional and financial investment into a franchise as being meaningful — and requiring the companies making those franchises to listen to them.
For another example of a company shouldering the responsibility of a beloved property extremely well, look no further than HBO and “Game of Thrones.” Like Disney, HBO is constantly engaging fans of the series in ways that encourage them to take part, rather than just watch.
Every year at conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con and South by Southwest, HBO stages elaborate fan experiences. Last year’s Hall of Faces, for instance, allowed fans to take photos that appeared on a wall modeled after the show’s Hall of Faces set, and those photos were then shareable online. HBO gives fans a chance to take photos with real props from the series, to see their favorite stars on Comic-Con panels, to create things like fan art to show their love of the show, and to engage in the conversation on social media. As a result, “Game of Thrones,” like “Star Wars,” is something of a cultural phenomenon. And fans have become the show’s best asset in continually widening its audience.
The lesson to learn from Disney and “Star Wars” and HBO and “Game of Thrones” is that fans are more than just customers, and they’re more than just a resource to spread word of a property and encourage more people to tune in. Fan communities are just that — communities. Companies that manage them well, and help those fans stay engaged, earn enormous goodwill that pays off in many more ways than just increased viewership or merchandise sales. Creating something truly lasting, in the era of social media, is about engaging with the people that love it. It’s about not just managing a community — it’s about celebrating it.