Why Rogue One Faces Marketing Challenges That No Other Star Wars Movie Has

How the first non-Episode film is rolling out differently

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Here we are, about two months out from the release of a new Star Wars movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It's safe to assume at least a decent percentage of you are waiting anxiously to head to theaters and journey once more to a galaxy far, far away. But the marketing and advertising for the movie has faced, and will continue to face, some interesting challenges that haven't been in front of previous movies.

First, let's make sure we're all on the same page: Rogue One is the first Star Wars movie that doesn't bear the iconic "Episode" designation. The seven movies to date (let's not count 2008's Clone Wars, which was a theatrical release splicing together three episodes of the then-upcoming TV series) have all been Star Wars: Episode #, a labeling that now seems to apply only to the "core" movies that tell the big story of the Skywalker family as well as their friends, allies and adversaries. Rogue One follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a Rebel operative tasked with stealing the Death Star plans. Yes, the ones that Princess Leia hides with R2-D2 at the beginning of the original Star Wars.

With that brief recap out of the way, let's take a look at some of the ways this is a unique movie marketing moment in the Star Wars franchise.

We Literally Just Did This

No, seriously, we just did this. At this time last year, we were beginning to see the full power of the Disney marketing machine kick in with TV spots and other last-minute pushes for The Force Awakens, which also hit theaters in December. Many of us still have a hangover from that campaign, which brought the franchise back after an 11-year absence following Revenge of the Sith. So, unlike a year ago, there isn't 10-plus years of repressed fandom to tap into.

Scaled-Back Marketing

Since it has been less than a year since the last Star Wars theatrical release, there hasn't been the same uncluttered runway for Rogue One that there was for The Force Awakens. Rogue One has gotten three trailers, just a few posters and more limited cast appearances so far. That's more in line with a "normal" marketing schedule for a major studio blockbuster. If anything, it's a bit restrained. But it's in a unique position, since Disney couldn't start selling the movie before TFA's release, and it had to compete in many ways with that movie's home video release.

Nostalgia, but With a Twist

When The Force Awakens campaign was in force (sorry), it relied heavily on nostalgia, with the biggest moment from the first trailer being Han's "We're home" line upon boarding the Falcon with Chewie. Rogue One also relies on nostalgia by telling us the story that sets in motion the events of the first movie, the one we all unabashedly love. So it's not selling us a return to the characters and settings we love—it's selling us a bit of backstory to a movie that answers the question "How did the Rebels get the Death Star plans?" that spawned many a grade-school playground conversation. (This story has been told before in various media, all of which are now unofficial and not canon. This is a topic for another time.)

The Expanded Universe Comes to Film

Going back to the notion that this isn't a Star Wars "Episode," that's a classification that has in the past pushed a story into what's come to be known as the Expanded Universe, a series of side stories featuring ancillary characters that weren't tied to the Skywalker family or the Jedi. These kinds of bonus stories used to be confined to books, comics, cartoons and other media. It will be interesting to see if the public is as anxious for these non-core stories. Disney chief Bob Iger has already been making comments tamping down expectations, just on the off chance this doesn't do the same boffo box office that last year's movie did.

Rogue One has a lot going for it. Not only is Felicity Jones an in-demand and popular actor right now, but director Gareth Edwards has a great reputation, particularly among film critics who love his visual style and storytelling abilities. And hey, it's Star Wars, and with the Disney machine behind it, there's little chance the movie will be objectively bad. The studio has shown with the Marvel Cinematic Universe that it can keep the franchise assembly line running and still consistently turn out halfway decent movies, so there's no reason to think that won't apply to Star Wars.

Are the standards somewhat higher? Sure. Forty-year-olds like me don't have wistful childhood memories of recreating Iron Man and Captain America's Civil War in our living rooms using whatever action figures and toy ships we'd convinced our parents to buy if you really loved me, Mom (sorry). But while Disney will no doubt turn out a quality movie, there are things that Star Wars, as a franchise, hasn't had to face in the last 40 years that now need to be addressed. In two months' time, we'll see how it handled those challenges. 

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@ChrisThilk chris.thilk@gmail.com Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategy consultant in the Chicago suburbs. You can find him at ChrisThilk.com, where he shares his thoughts on content marketing, media and movie marketing.