THE FORCE AWAKENS Trailer: Selling A Movie That Doesn’t Need To Be Sold

Thoughts on a reluctant trailer.

Ticket sales for Star Wars: The Force Awakens crashed the servers of just about every major theatrical chain in the US and the UK. This movie is going to do well, everybody is going to see it, and a lot of people are going to see it more than once. It's clear to all involved that this is a film that markets itself, and Disney has been playing frugal with their spending, allowing fans and official licencees do a lot of the heavy lifting. The Force Awakens is such a juggernaut in the making that you even wonder if they needed to cut a trailer for the thing. 

Watching the new trailer you can hear that question echoing in the editing room. JJ Abrams has long been a proponent of the Mystery Box, a system dedicated to keeping as much about a movie secret as possible, and the Star Wars marketing has thus far been a triumph for it. The new trailer feels, to me, very much like the trailer cut by someone who doesn't want to cut a trailer, the work of someone who is meeting a corporate expectation he would rather shun. 

This is the final trailer (it seems), but it has the beats of a teaser. There's a lot of imagery that is loosely connected and there's little narrative thrust. You walk out of the trailer without a strong idea of what the story of The Force Awakens actually is. If you're reading this you're living inside the same bubble in which I live - ie, the bubble of people who can make the informed speculation that the voice we hear in the opening of the trailer is Lupita Nyong'o's Maz Kanata - but I'm curious what people outside the bubble make of this trailer. For those of us inside the bubble the lack of Luke Skywalker (well, mostly lack - he's clearly touching R2 in a quick shot repeated from the teaser) is mysterious, but for people outside the bubble - people unaware that Mark Hamill is in this movie - does Luke's absence just indicate they couldn't convince the guy to come back? 

The structure of the trailer is what really makes it feel like a teaser to me. It builds to a crescendo and then it goes out softly, on whispered lines of dialogue. I truly expected there to be a big sting after the film's logo popped up, a crowd-pleaser moment like an X-Wing flying through the debris of a Tie Fighter or, more excitingly, a silhouetted Luke Skywalker triggering a familiar lightsaber. That the trailer goes out with soft music is intriguing, and is part of the air of 'teaser' that I felt watching the whole thing. 

Part of the structure that I like is the way introduces the three leads - Rey, Finn and Kylo Ren - before going into larger montage madness, but that structure is pretty similar to the initial teaser. Traditionally your teaser trailer gives you a vibe and some character stuff while your final trailer gives you a sense of the story they're selling, but The Force Awakens has completely eschewed that.

Reading through trailer analyses (this is the best one I've found yet) the most surprising thing is how few surprises there were in the trailer. The poster offered us that Death Star looking thing - probably Starkiller Base - but the trailer mostly elaborated on stuff that we (the bubble dwellers) already knew. Even seeing Leia for the first time was slightly undercut by the poster, and the trailer avoided showing us almost any new droids, creatures or secondary characters. This whole marketing process has been tightly controlled from the start - the characters we were initially introduced to in the first reveal (those old fashioned Topps cards) are, more or less, still the only characters we have seen. 

That control extends to the other marketing materials. It's de rigeur to inundate the world with character posters and teasers, but that hasn't happened with The Force Awakens. We have had exactly three official posters: a teaser poster with only the logo, a D23 fan poster and the final one sheet. While fans would likely go nuts over Finn and Rey posters Disney doesn't have to make them - not for free, anyway. Expect to be able to buy plenty of posters with their faces on them. 

What we're seeing is a major blockbuster hitting the standard checkpoints of movie marketing with great reluctance. The only reason why there have been posters or trailers, I believe, is because the marketing system has become so used to that kind of campaign that to buck the trend could be seen as weak. I already heard some people whispering that the lack of a Star Wars trailer hinted at Disney being unhappy with the film (this is as about as far from the truth as you can get, by the way. They're over the fucking moon about this movie), and if there had never been a trailer we would enter November with a lot of thinkpieces asking why. I truly believe that in JJ Abrams' perfect world we would have had that first teaser and nothing else. 

There is one great question that remains about the marketing of The Force Awakens: TV spots. Trailers and posters raise awareness, but ask anyone in publicity and they will tell you the same thing, that TV spots drive asses to seats. With The Force Awakens things are different - lots of theaters have already sold out their opening weekend showings, although they may yet try to add more - but I suspect that the impulse from Disney will be the same as always. They will want to slather Star Wars all over TV screens opening weekend, and they'll want to do it how they always do it - with TV spots that are incredibly spoilery. If you watch the marketing of any major movie you'll see that carefully cultivated secrets and reveals often get totally blown in the TV spots, and that's no accident. It goes back to the Zemeckis theory that people want to see exactly what they're getting, and the marketing people recognize that the best way to motivate TV watchers buy tickets is to show them the best stuff. And while a lot has changed in the world of movie promotion since the advent of the internet the importance of TV spots remains. Will The Force Awakens suddenly start revealing its secrets in the week before release, or will its marketing campaign stay as reserved as it has been?

It's fascinating seeing Disney sell a movie that does not need to be sold. I liked the trailer, but I must admit I felt a bit underwhelmed by it. Some of that comes from life within the bubble - all of this stuff is familiar to me! - but maybe some of it comes from the way the trailer is selling me on the vibe of a Star Wars movie... ie, a vibe I already know intimately. 

But there's a reason for this. As we speak China is the second biggest movie market on Earth and is headed towards becoming number one, and China has no relationship with Star Wars. Disney doesn't have to sell Star Wars in the West, but if they want to kill it in China - and do they ever want to kill it in China - they have to figure out how to sell it there. The parade of quick imagery and the selling of a vibe feels very much like an overture to Chinese audiences who simply don't know and don't give a shit about Luke, Han and the rest. I'm curious to see if there's another international trailer in the offing, one that could be a more traditional plot-based sell.