7 Ways Disney Got ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Right

Studio’s risky strategy on casting, marketing and choosing a release date pays off with record debut

Last Updated: December 21, 2015 @ 8:25 AM

Roughly three years before this weekend’s record-breaking domestic debut of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Disney knew the formula behind the most revered and iconic sci-fi franchise in American cinema would need some changes.

The studio didn’t just tinker with the formula, it reinvented it with a handful of new stars and characters, a director best-known for another sci-fi film series, J.J. Abrams, and an eye toward launching a decade of “Star Wars” movies.

Those were the first in a series of decisions that challenged conventional Hollywood wisdom, and will impact the way the industry views casting, choosing a director and rolling out a blockbuster in the future.

It was a gamble but Disney got it right, Exhibit A being the record-breaking weekend. Here are five ways:

Casting: Putting a young woman (Daisy Ridley) and a black man (John Boyega) in the lead roles broadened the film’s base in terms of gender, ethnicity and proved a lure for younger fans, particularly females. “These young stars had undeniable chemistry and irresistible on-screen dynamics among a very diverse group of actors,” Rentrak senior analyst Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap. Their selection, and the passing on more established actors had fans buzzing even before the movie opened.

Marketing: It could have been loud, overwhelming and, given that it was everywhere in the new media as well, overkill. Instead, Mouse marketers wisely opted for a less-is-more strategy that was understated, and kept key plot points close to the vest with trailer drops and TV ads timed to take full advantage of social media, which was record-breaking and amplified the impact. “They created the perfect ebb and flow of “Star Wars” info-candy to drive fans insane,” said Dergarabedian.

December Release: Studios had for years been very careful when launching big-budget films in the holiday corridor of December because consumers are busy shopping, traveling and the marketplace is often overloaded. But Disney was confident it could open this one big despite the obstacles, and rather than roll it out in summer with the other blockbusters, chose a release date that positioned it for the long run. “The conventional wisdom about the limitations of releasing in the December corridor go right out the window of the Millennium Falcon,” said Dergarabedian.

Director: Conventional wisdom would say don’t go with a guy associated with another well-known sci-fi franchise, and in Abrams’ case, it’s the “Star Trek” series. Disney bucked that and won the gamble in a big way. Abrams has as much to do as anyone with the critical love the film has drawn and its 95 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. “Abrams was the perfect choice in terms of his street cred with true fans and his ability to take time-worn genres (sci-fi, mystery, action) and imbue them with a freshness and unique voice that make audiences feel like they’re going along for these rides for the very first time,” said Dergarabedian.

Respect for Elders: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill , as well as Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO, provided a critical link for nostalgic older fans. “This was a key factor in the film’s ability to draw cross-generational audiences and build on the emotional tie that audiences young and old have with the original films and the iconic characters that these actors portray,” said Dergarabedian. It also helped old school fans of the franchise accept the new actors and characters like adorable little droid, BB-8.

Around the Horn:  Disney Chairman Alan Horn knows blockbusters. He arrived at the studio in 2012 from Warner Bros., where he oversaw a slew of mega-hits including the “Dark Knight” and “Harry Potter” franchises. That expertise had to have helped him guide the launch of “The Force Awakens,” which is the first in a trilogy of films.

Spoilers: There were a plenty of surprises (and more humor than most expected) in “The Force Awakens.” The twists enlivened the plot, but they also provided an added element of fun, especially for “Star Wars” super fans, and there are many. First, they got to guess about the hinted-at surprises, then they were able to keep the twists from fans who hadn’t seen it yet — or not.