- - Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Nissan wants us to breathe … just breathe. Why?

It’s a key line from the trailer to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” as well as a new Nissan commercial. So what does a car company have to do with a massive movie franchise roaring back to life this weekend?

Nothing … and everything. That’s movie marketing in 2017. Even the biggest film franchises must push their products in creative ways, even one from a galaxy far, far away.

The marketing machine behind the eighth film in the “Star Wars” saga has been underway for some time, and the public is all too eager to lend a hand. The last official trailer for the film, written and directed by Rian Johnson (“Looper”), has generated north of 41 million views since its October posting on YouTube.

Now, as the movie preps for its U.S. release Thursday evening, the onslaught of “Star Wars” mentions is at a fever pitch. Fashion. Automobiles. Cereal. Yogurt. And, of course, toys. It helps that Disney owns the saga, which allows it to advertise throughout its large corporate family, including ESPN.

Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University, says no matter “The Last Jedi“‘s marketing muscle, its cultural footprint won’t match that of the first films.

“Nothing can be compared to the impact of the original trilogy, since that created the franchise,” Mr. Levinson said. “Even if the raw numbers of sales are bigger these days, no ‘Star Wars’ movie and merchandise can compare to the path-breaking consequences of the original trilogy.”

The merchandising muscle? That’s a different story. Mr. Levinson expects the merchandise push will boost ticket sales.

“Even and especially in this age of digital media, people love physical keepsakes, something you can hold on to and take home with you. So merchandising and ticket sales should be both great this year — at least equaling if not surpassing those for ‘The Force Awakens,’” Mr. Levinson said.

The momentum, dare we say “the Force,” clearly was building in the hours before the film’s official release. On Sunday, twice the social engagements (mentions on Twitter, Facebook, etc.) were generated for “The Last Jedi” compared with the previous two days, according to 4C Insights, a data science and media technology company based in Chicago. The Sunday engagements alone came in at 180,000.

Paul Palmer personally knows the impact “Star Wars” toys can have on the film. Now a professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, Mr. Palmer served as senior brand manager for toymaker Hasbro Inc. when “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones” hit theaters in 1999 and 2002, respectively.

The franchise’s toy line remains white-hot, partly because of the message “Star Wars” director George Lucas established from the earliest days of the series, Mr. Palmer said. Make the details pop. You can see it from the hilt of the toy lightsabers to Darth Vader’s signature voice box.

“[Mr. Lucas] wanted to bring the saga to life for kids. There’s a degree of authenticity that’s always been there since inception,” Mr. Palmer said.

Little has changed since then, and the toys still fly off the shelves. The Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association reported that global retail sales hit nearly $263 billion last year, partly because of “Star Wars” goodies.

“Star Wars” toys alone generated $1.4 billion from July 2016 to this July, according to NPD Group and the Retail Tracking Service. And it isn’t your neighbors’ kids gobbling up the action figures and remote-controlled R2D2s.

“What’s really kept the saga alive are the ‘tween and adult fans. That audience demands authenticity,” Mr. Palmer said.

Could all of this lead to an oversaturated market … and potentially fewer ticket sales?

Jeff Burchett, director of product marketing with ThinkGeek.com, doesn’t think so. The culture changed dramatically since “Star Wars” first hit theaters in 1977.

“A lot of geekdom has become more mainstream. There’s more opportunities to expand their interests and live it in different ways,” Mr. Burchett says.

For example, ThinkGeek.com sells overt “Star Wars” tie-ins (think plush Porg toys from “The Last Jedi”) as well as high-end watches with more sophisticated “Star Wars” flourishes.

“The boundaries of what constitutes saturation have shifted,” Mr. Burchett said.

To put it another way, the saga’s marketing future remains blindingly bright, Mr. Palmer said, especially as today’s children trudge off to school wearing the latest “Star Wars” gear. The rest is up to the filmmakers behind “The Last Jedi” and its sequels.

“They’re continuing to push what’s possible in terms of stories and special effects. … I don’t think we’ve gotten satiated yet,” Mr. Palmer said.

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