Those who know me are well aware that I have an almost unhealthy obsession with Star Wars. From the moment that Disney announced their purchase of the franchise from George Lucas, I counted down the days until Episode 7 would be released. I grew up with the original trilogy and spent a good portion of my childhood as Luke Skywalker─ and I never really outgrew my Jedi aspirations. So attending The Force Awakens on opening night with my kids, my wife, and my brother was destined to be a sacred event for me… and the movie did not disappoint. J.J. Abrams and his Disney team managed to evoke the childhood nostalgia for which I had been yearning, to provide a brand new experience and adventure in the theater, and to fill me with significant anticipation for Episodes 8 and 9. It was exactly what I had hoped for and more.
Disney’s ability to exceed the fans’ and the critics’ expectations is especially impressive given the overall displeasure with the prequel trilogy (with Jar Jar Binks) that came between the original masterpiece and this new one. While the prequels were still largely successful at the box office, they were generally a disappointment not only in failing to deliver a story that satisfied fans, but also in creating the epic Star Wars experience in the theater. To be fair, there were some strong performances, interesting new elements, and exciting effects… but holistically, these movies failed to strike all the right chords and fell far short of the magic of the original trilogy.
So what did Disney get right, with what is essentially a brand restage, that the preceding prequel trilogy got wrong? And as innovators, what can we learn from these lessons that we can reapply to our own programs, teams, and lives?
- First story, then technology. The Star Wars universe has always been a magical blend of an epic adventure story, fascinatingly heroic characters, and breakthrough special effects. All of these pieces are important, and a Star Wars movie would not work with any of these aspects missing. What the original trilogy got right was to focus on wrapping the audience in an awe-inspiring adventure that was appropriately supported by unique and superior special effects. When George Lucas delivered the subsequent prequel movies, his love for technological effects were front and center… but his story was lacking. He delivered the stylistic design elements of a breakthrough space saga, but failed to provide the substance. When J.J. Abrams took on The Force Awakens, Disney did what Disney does best and again focused first on nailing the experiential story and only then used the technology to deliver the right look and feel. The technology is important, but it must remain secondary to a compelling, heart opening story.
- Know your loyal audience, and don’t “dumb down” your product for younger consumers. Star Wars has been a cultural phenomenon for almost 40 years, and now has multiple generations of loyal and even obsessed fans. For a brand to stand the test of time, it must not only delight its existing fans, but bring new consumers into the franchise as well. The prequel trilogy attempted to do this via both comic relief, with characters such as the epically annoying Jar Jar Binks, as well as child versions of legendary villains like Darth Vader and Boba Fett. These characters, teamed with some juvenile humor and goofy scenes, may have generated some laughs for the younger fans, but were cringe-worthy for the majority of the audience. Contrast this with The Force Awakens, where Disney also infused youth into the franchise, but in a way that didn’t alienate the loyal, demanding fans. New, diverse characters were developed who brought a youthful and fresh energy to the show, but built off of the existing equity for the broader Star Wars experience. Disney didn’t change the essence of Star Wars to delight the next generation of fans─ they instead added some new twists that built off of a foundation that has worked for generations.
- Leverage your iconic assets and deliver a holistic experience. When I walked out of that theater on opening night, beyond just being impressed by the story, feeling anxious for the next chapter, and replaying the key sequences in my mind… I just felt awesome. For the first time in over 30 years, I left feeling that same childlike wonder that the original Star Wars movies had provided. It wasn’t just a good product─ it was an amazing experience. J.J. Abrams and his team took time to not only understand the key functional elements that fans wanted to see, but also the experiential ones that the fans yearned to feel. Touching moments with legendary heroes like Han Solo, Princess/General Leia, and Luke Skywalker. Classic icons like the Millennium Falcon, C-3PO, and R2-D2. The brilliant John Williams soundtrack and live action special effects. Disney didn’t just understand the physical elements to make this movie work for fans… they understood the emotional ones as well, and delivered an experience that satisfied its audience in mind, heart, and soul.
- Don’t explain all of the magic. One of the most amazing elements of the original 1977 Star Wars adventure was the unexplained nature of the Force. Luke Skywalker’s mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi attempted to explain this mythical power by saying, “…the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” This Force could only be wielded by a select few individuals and enabled powers like super human agility, Jedi mind tricks, and an ability to commune with spirits from the past. It is never really explained how this works or why certain individuals are chosen, but this magical, spiritual mystery creates part of the aura and mystique that made the movie so compelling. When George Lucas later brought the prequel trilogy to life, he made the choice to provide a biological explanation for this once mystical Force. Midichlorians were defined as some sort of microorganisms found in all living things but in a higher concentration among Jedis─ more like a performance enhancing drug than a mythical power. While he gave the audience a reasonable scientific explanation, he managed to destroy what had until then been purely magical. With the Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams went back to the mystical Force qualities, and thus brought back the mystery and mysticism of the original films. Audiences love a little magic, and the best magic doesn’t need a worldly explanation.
- Never compromise quality for timing. No matter the endeavor, there is always pressure to get products to market at a lightspeed pace. Case in point, executives at Disney initially targeted a May 2015 launch for The Force Awakens, putting a lot of pressure on the team to quickly get a winning movie to market. Ultimately, Abrams and his team convinced Disney to postpone the release date to December of 2015 to insure that they could not just deliver a good movie, but an outstanding one. I have no doubt that it was a painful decision for Disney to delay, but ultimately one that they did make so as to maximize the team’s ability to deliver the highest quality product. While a painful decision in the moment, today they are reaping the rewards of one of the most successful movies of all time. Years from now, when they look back on the epic success that this movie yielded, there will not even be a semblance of a memory of the angst that resulted from a 7 month delay. When creating something magical, it is far more important to get it right than to get it fast.
When Disney took over the Star Wars franchise, it is clear that they made it their mission to deeply understand what drove a four decade long love affair with the science fiction saga. They managed to rekindle the magical experience of the originals, delight the most passionate of their loyal followers, and create a new generation of Jedi fans. And while some critics have alleged that the new movie was too much of a reboot of the originals and not enough of a new twist, Disney understood that this was exactly what the franchise needed to kick off this next era. After the prequel “brand restage” missed the mark, Disney went back to what worked and thus helped Star Wars return to its original glory. I am fascinated to see where they go next with the saga, and how they manage to maintain yet evolve the Star Wars equity. And their story has already become a fascinating case study for how to restage a brand, and to provide new innovation that furthers a story that works.