Promoters of Coming ‘Star Wars’ Film Have a Delicate Dance at Comic-Con


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Star Wars Stormtroopers on Thursday at Comic-Con International in  San Diego. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has had a modest presence at the convention.

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Sandy Huffaker/Reuters

SAN DIEGO — As the Comic-Con International fan convention opened here this week, one of the most anticipated movies of the decade, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” was strangely invisible.

Promotions for films arriving as far off as 2017 festooned the sides of hotel towers, light poles, trolley cars and shopping bags. But there was nary a key chain for “The Force Awakens,” set for release by Disney in December. The Force sleeps?

Disney and its Lucasfilm unit finally made some noise late Friday, by trotting out the movie’s director, J.J. Abrams, and new cast members like John Boyega in a presentation for roughly 6,500 fans. But it was not an especially flashy affair — they revealed no footage, no new trailer — becoming less of a promotional moment than an example of how Disney is carefully conducting what may be history’s most delicate exercise in fan management.

Interest in “The Force Awakens” is already so extreme that Disney knows its safest option is to hold back. Revealing too much too soon could overheat the marketplace at the wrong time, perhaps even making casual ticket buyers less interested in turning out on Dec. 18. Hard-core fans, meanwhile, could recoil at what they see — Jar Jar Binks: never forget — leading to an impossible-to-contain surge of bad buzz that could spill into the mainstream.

It would be better for Disney’s stock price, too, if the movie over-delivers on tamped-down expectations. Some analysts, noting that a decade-long absence of new “Star Wars” films has created pent-up box office demand, are already predicting global ticket sales in excess of $2 billion, the realm of “Titanic” and “Avatar.”

But revealing too little carries its own risks. Disney knows that “Star Wars” fans will stomp their Stormtrooper boots if they feel ignored. When fans felt burned by George Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars,” after his digital tinkering with the original trilogy, the result was a 2010 attack documentary: “The People vs. George Lucas.” (One song from the film was titled “George Lucas Raped Our Childhood.”)

The ability of fans to hijack studio marketing campaigns has only grown since then. This year, Comic-Con panels have included “The Wrath of Con Bloggers,” focused on using the Internet as a tool to better empower fans. A session Friday centered on the emerging concept of the super fan, which is apparently akin to a drug-resistant bacterium — very powerful, potentially troubling.

“They don’t want to be led,” said Eric Moro, vice president for programming at Wikia, an online clearinghouse for specialized fan communities.

Adding to Disney’s intergalactic challenges, the overseas marketplace needs stoking in a way the domestic one does not. When the first three “Star Wars” movies came out, for instance, they were not released in China, now the world’s No. 2 film market, behind the United States. In other words, there may not be the same generational love for the series there, making marketing more necessary.

But any pocket marketing overseas will instantly travel the globe.

The upshot: Disney has so far mounted an amuse-bouche campaign for “The Force Awakens” — a teaser trailer here, a Vanity Fair photo shoot there. The information that has been distributed has been carefully shaped to simultaneously respect Mr. Lucas and telegraph that the new movie will be better than his last few, which many fans received coolly.

Disney declined to comment on its “Star Wars” marketing strategy.

Almost nothing has been revealed about the movie’s plot. Many character descriptions and droid designs have been kept state secrets. Even Princess Leia’s hairstyles have been carefully guarded, although Carrie Fisher let slip that there would be no side-mounted buns, prompting headlines across the web.

In part because of the shortage of information, whenever a “Force Awakens” tidbit has been divulged, the reaction has been like food sprinkled over a piranha tank. A trailer lasting 1 minute 22 seconds, released at a fan event in April, generated 88 million online views in 24 hours, setting a Guinness World Record.

In the meantime, Disney, which bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, has spent a lot of time tap-dancing.

“Director J.J. Abrams and the amazing cast have created something truly spectacular,” Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive and chairman, told an audience at the entertainment conglomerate’s annual meeting in March. “Unfortunately, that’s all I can tell you about this movie. Since, you know, secrecy is a longstanding Lucasfilm tradition. I figured I’d blame it on Lucasfilm, right?”

The crowd made its displeasure known. “O.K. All right. I know you’re disappointed,” Mr. Iger said, before changing the subject to other “Star Wars” offerings, including new spinoff movies, like one featuring a young Han Solo.

Disney and Lucasfilm tried a similar strategy at Comic-Con, choosing, whether consciously or by herd instinct, to promote various “Star Wars” properties across the convention on Friday, as people associated with “Star Wars”-related products popped up on at least 20 panels. Mr. Moro, for instance, was hosting two “Star Wars” specialists — Leland Chee, from the Lucasfilm story group, and Gary Whitta, a writer on the coming “Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One” — on that super fan panel.

Some older Comic-Con participants say they feel as if Lucasfilm owes them after years of loyalty. Mr. Lucas first came to the convention in 1976 and all but begged for support for a movie called “Star Wars” that Hollywood marketers, as surprising as it sounds, did not quite know how to handle. (Was it for a mass audience or a limited one?)

On Friday, Disney and Lucasfilm briefly brought out familiar stars like Harrison Ford and ended their session on an unusual note by inviting attendees to a live concert of “Star Wars” music. But the companies largely used their panel presentation to hammer home the message that Mr. Abrams filmed “The Force Awakens” with real sets and real creatures, showing a video at one point of crew members building spacecraft. Left unsaid was the real memorandum: The new “Star Wars” will veer away from the maligned computer-generated imagery that captivated Mr. Lucas late in his career.

But when an audience member asked about the movie’s plot, Mr. Abrams politely shut him down. “We don’t want to be talking about story too much, too soon,” he said.



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