With ‘Solo,’ Disney Is Changing Up the Star Wars Marketing Machine. Will Audiences Get on Board?

There's a subtle shift to promoting actors, not just characters

Disney's recent poster for Solo gave higher billing to the actors than the franchise has done in the past.
Headshot of Chris Thilk

Hang on, everyone, because your interminable wait of (checks calendar) five whole months is over, and we’re about to finally get a new Star Wars movie.

About to hit theaters is Solo: A Star Wars Story. This is the second in the “Story” branch of the movies Disney is producing, a designation meant to differentiate them from the “Saga” movies that have episode numbering and which, to date, have focused in some way on the Skywalker family and its allies and villains. Rogue One, released in 2016 between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, was the first theatrical release to veer away from the story of Anakin, Luke and Leia.

Now, as we wait for the still-untitled Episode IX in late 2019, we get a standalone story focusing on the early years and exploits of everyone’s favorite Corellian smuggler. Since this movie takes place about 10 years prior to A New Hope and we’re not quite at the point where digitally de-aging Harrison Ford is a viable option, Alden Ehrenreich steps into the pilot’s seat as a version of the character who’s still a little green, just getting started in his life of shady characters and dealings. It’s not just Han we’re seeing: Chewbacca is along for the ride, as is Lando Calrissian, played notably by Donald Glover.

Saying the movie arrives with a cloud over it would be somewhat of an understatement. Directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord (of The LEGO Movie and more) were unceremoniously removed from the production roughly halfway through principal photography, replaced by Ron Howard. Reports circulated that Ehrenreich was having issues with his performance and required extensive coaching. From the day the movie was announced, it was getting side-eye from fans who believed Ford’s performance as the lovable scoundrel could never be matched or recreated by anyone else.

How the movie is being sold has been subject to substantial speculation. People took the fact that the first trailer didn’t debut until early February—just three months out from release—as a sign the fears for quality were justified (in actuality the campaign likely just couldn’t overlap with that for The Last Jedi) and saw warning signs everywhere. Or at least everywhere but in the effortless cool and swagger evinced by Glover as Lando, because damn that man knows how to wear a space cape.

One aspect of the marketing recently called out is the new poster that arrived along with a second trailer. That poster has gotten people’s attention for one seemingly ordinary thing: The names of the movie’s stars appear above the title. In fact a Reddit commenter made the claim this was the first time that had happened in the history of Star Wars films, dating all the way back to 1977. So we have to ask: Is that true?

Technically, yes, that’s accurate. If you review the poster designs for any of the Star Wars movies to date, this Solo poster is an anomaly in that the names of the actors involved are shown anywhere but in the credits block at the bottom.

For a good chunk of the last 15 years, especially as franchise entries, cinematic universes and other films based on existing intellectual property have come to dominate the theatrical marketplace, the press has regularly embraced a narrative that “stars don’t sell movies.” More recently that’s morphed into “directors don’t sell movies.” In either case, the idea is that audiences aren’t so much buying tickets based on who’s in the movie or who’s created it. Instead, they’re more invested in the characters they know from other media or wooed by the promise of incredible action sequences. There’s some validity in that argument, but it’s also an oversimplification of an industry that no longer knows how to sell anything but IMAX blockbusters.

In this case, the choice to do so is doubly puzzling. Star Wars has always been sold on the characters, not the actors, beating the “stars don’t sell movies” trend by at least 25 or 30 years. Watch the trailer for The Empire Strikes Back and the narrator (Harrison Ford, btw) names the characters, but not who’s playing them. Solo’s cast—including Woody Harrelson, Emelia Clarke, Thandie Newton and others—is impressive, but not much more so than the casts for any of the previous movies.

Reality is Disney and Lucasfilm may have made this call for one of two reasons: 1. This signals some shift in strategy, one that’s more talent-focused and wants to reinforce the cast in the minds of the audience. Disney has consistently been good about including the names of the actors on the theatrical posters for its Marvel Cinematic Universe films, so maybe it’s beginning to apply the same formula. 2. It’s using the placement of those names as a way to compensate for the negative press that’s surrounded the production, essentially putting them there as a vote of confidence.

Solo will have a lot to prove when it comes out next month. It’s clouded in rumors and word of mouth that’s less than positive as well as an overall perception that it’s less than essential. The condensed marketing cycle due to waiting until the end of The Last Jedi’s campaign hasn’t helped as major studio tentpoles like this usually receive marketing pushes that last six months or more. And The Last Jedi was disliked by many fans, despite being inarguably the best, most emotionally honest Star Wars movie in 40 years and yes, I will fight you on this.

The point being, whether or not Solo’s marketing materials use the names of the actors in the movie is an interesting footnote in a campaign that is sailing into heavy headwinds. It may very well be that Disney felt it had to pull out every available tool to make its case to the audience that this—the only Star Wars we’ll have until December 2019, when Episode IX hits theaters—is worth seeing.

@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.