On Friday night at the 2015 San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC) there was only one topic of conversation: Did you hear about the Star Wars panel in Hall H? Because, even for SDCC standards, that panel was one for the ages.
Those of us not inside Hall H heard snippets and rumors throughout the evening. The entire cast is there and they presented an awesome behind-the-scenes reel? Cool, but not exactly breaking news for Hall H. Then… J.J. Abrams led the 6,000+ fans in Hall H a mile along the San Diego waterfront to Marina Park where they got to attend a live symphony orchestra performance of the Star Wars score? What??? That’s some crazy, epic, above-and-beyond stuff. And everyone got a lightsaber toy? Jealous! Definitely better swag than stickers or posters. AND THERE WERE FIREWORKS???
Once the smoke cleared (literally and figuratively) it became clear that the Star Wars celebration was pretty much the greatest SDCC event ever. Even though I’m only a casual Star Wars fans, I briefly regretted not sleeping on the sidewalk for a night or two just to feel what it must have felt like to be part of THAT. Mostly, I was excited and happy for the people that made it in — the people who are life-long Star Wars fans, who did sleep on the sidewalk most of the week, and for whom this was surely a dream-come-true experience filled with tears, awe, and utter joy.
I can’t even imagine the cost, time, effort, and sheer organizational genius it took for Disney to pull this off. But from a strategic perspective, it was the smart thing to do. This was “fanthropology” done right. Know your fans, and find the strategic win/win for your brand and for the fan experience.
For many Star Wars fans, the films are basically a religion. On the list of “things that people are super big fans of,” Star Wars certainly ranks in the top 5. While fan culture reaches far and wide these days — see, intense Marmite fandom — there are a few cultural touch points that shaped the history of fandom in profound ways. Star Wars is one of these touch points. Especially for Generation X, there’s a good chance that Star Wars was their first experience of being a fan, and thus had a huge impact in shaping their interests, their ideas, and even their sense of identity. Even fan culture itself was shaped by Star Wars, since the film was released during a period when media fandom as we know it today was still in its infancy. Star Wars was likely the genesis of the “fanboy” archetype. There’s even a movie called FANBOYS (2009), whose main characters are — surprise — obsessed with Star Wars.
In this light, the epic scale of the 2015 SDCC Star Wars celebration was a perfect “product/market fit.” A much-loved, generation-defining franchise deserves a salute on a grand scale.
The event also tapped into a sense of nostalgia that permeates much of fan culture. Fandom, in many ways, is about sharing memories. This process achieves a sense of connection with other fans through stories of how we become fans, where-we-were-when, or how fandom influenced us during specific times of our lives. That’s one of the reasons collecting is such a pervasive aspect of fan culture. It is memory made material — not just a representation of the object of our fandom, but a reminder of what it means to us, and why.
The Star Wars celebration tapped into this nostalgia on all fronts:
There was a moment before the concert started, while they were playing all the pre-show music, when “Sweet Child O’ Mine” came on. I grew up in the ‘80s, so of course I loved it, and there I was: lightsaber in hand, with Guns N’ Roses playing at some bizarro Star Wars concert at Comic-Con. I put both hands in the air and said, “This is the perfect event!” (Star Wars created the most magical event of Comic-Con, The Verge, July 13 2015)
At the end of the day, Comic-Con is a marketing event, and Disney’s motivation in putting on this Star Wars celebration was not (entirely) out of charity for the fans. It also produced a massive amount of media buzz, increased brand equity for the franchise, and garnered immense good will and positive anticipation for the film. There’s a good chance STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS will become the highest grossing film of all time. That being said, the Star Wars celebration succeeded in making fans feel appreciated and important. When fan investment is as deeply emotional as it is for Star Wars fans, it is vital that this emotional investment is foregrounded over any commercial aims.
From a big-picture strategic point of view, investing in a Comic-Con presentation of this scale was also a smart move in terms of reaffirming the emotional value of the Star Wars franchise going forward. Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 and immediately announced that it would begin developing new films in the Star Wars cinematic universe, both as sequels and stand-alone features. As such, Disney knows it has some work to do activate a new generation of Star Wars fans, who are as engaged with the property going forward as its original fans have been for over three decades.