Backed by a con­ven­tion this week, Walt Dis­ney Co. hopes the lat­est ‘Star Wars’ film pow­ers re­lated rev­enue streams for years to come

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Josh Rot­ten­berg

“Star Wars,” the space-opera fran­chise that rev­o­lu­tion­ized the movie busi­ness and spawned a sprawl­ing multi­bil­lion-dollar mul­ti­me­dia em­pire, is back with a re­newed force.

“Star Wars Episode VII,” the first new “Star Wars” film in a decade, won’t hit the­aters un­til Dec. 18. But the count­down be­gins in earnest Thurs­day, when grown men in Stormtrooper cos­tumes, sub­ur­ban moms dressed as Princess Leia and kids done up as cud­dly Ewoks will de­scend in droves on the Ana­heim Con­ven­tion Cen­ter for the Star Wars Cel­e­bra­tion fan con­ven­tion.

It marks a piv­otal mo­ment for one of the most lu­cra­tive se­ries in film his­tory — and for Walt Dis­ney Co., which paid $4 bil­lion to ac­quire Lu­cas­film and its “Star Wars” fran­chise from cre­ator Ge­orge Lu­cas in 2012.

Dis­ney is count­ing on “Episode VII” and a string of sub­se­quent “Star Wars” movies to power a host of re­lated rev­enue streams for years to come, in­clud­ing theme-park tie-ins. The com­pany’s track record of late is al­most f law­less, but the re­launch is not with­out its risks.

“The fans of ‘Star Wars’ will put you in your place if you don’t de­liver the goods,” said Paul Der­garabe­dian, se­nior me­dia an­a­lyst at the box-of­fice track­ing firm Ren­trak. “They are the best ar­biters of the brand. They can be your might­i­est mar­ket­ing foot sol­diers, or they can be your big­gest night­mare. A lot is rid­ing on them to get the word out in a pos­i­tive way.”

The four-day con­ven­tion in Ana­heim of­fers a chance for Dis­ney to as­sure fans that the uni­verse that Lu­cas cre­ated — with its blend of fu­tur­is­tic tech­nol­ogy, swash­buck­ling adventure and hero’s-jour­ney mythol­ogy straight out of Joseph Camp­bell — is in good hands.

It kicks off with a panel Thurs­day morn­ing fea­tur­ing “Episode VII” direc­tor J.J. Abrams and Lu­cas­film Pres­i­dent Kath­leen Kennedy that will of­fer the clear­est glimpse yet of the next chap­ter in the fran­chise’s nearly 40-year his­tory.

“This is Dis­ney’s first op­por­tu­nity to show the core au­di­ence for this prop­erty what they plan to do with it,” said Eric Geller, a writer for the “Star Wars” news site TheForce.net. “In 20 or 30 years, peo­ple will want to be able to say to their kids or their friends that they re­mem­ber when Dis­ney for­mally kicked off this next era — and Cel­e­bra­tion is re­ally that event.”

For months, the stu­dio has been care­fully man­ag­ing the mar­ket­ing roll­out of the new “Star Wars” film, subti­tled “The Force Awak­ens,” which will bring to­gether stars from the orig­i­nal tril­ogy — in­clud­ing Mark Hamill, Har­ri­son Ford and Car­rie Fisher — with a new gen­er­a­tion of ac­tors, some of whom hadn’t even been born when those films were re­leased.

In Novem­ber, Dis­ney re­leased a 90-sec­ond teaser for

the movie that was clearly en­gi­neered to tap into nos­tal­gia for the fran­chise with shots of X-wing Fighters and the Mil­len­nium Fal­con, sounds of lightsaber swooshes and the strains of com­poser John Wil­liams’ iconic “Star Wars” score.

Dur­ing Thurs­day’s panel, the stu­dio is ex­pected to show a new trailer that will of­fer a fuller look at the new film, which will kick off a new tril­ogy and three planned spinoff films over the next sev­eral years.

Fur­ther stok­ing the buzz for “Episode VII,” the six pre­vi­ous “Star Wars” films were re­cently re­leased for the first time on stream­ing ser­vices in­clud­ing iTunes, Ama­zon and Google Play.

Lu­cas­film mounted the first Star Wars Cel­e­bra­tion in Den­ver in 1999, just three weeks be­fore the re­lease of “The Phantom Men­ace,” and has held eight of them since then in the U.S., Europe and Ja­pan.

Over the years the con­ven­tions have fea­tured ap­pear­ances from “Star Wars” cast and crew mem­bers along with ex­clu­sive mer­chan­dise, ex­hi­bi­tions of fan­cre­ated art, cos­tume con­tests and Jedi Train­ing ses­sions.

This year, with so much ex­cite­ment around the fran­chise, plan­ners are ex­pect­ing 40,000 or more fans to at­tend, more than any pre­vi­ous con­ven­tion.

“This is one time we think we could sell out,” said the event’s direc­tor, Mary Franklin, who has been work­ing on the con­ven­tions since 2001.

For mil­lions of “Star Wars” fans around the world, the next eight months prom­ise a heady blend of an­tic­i­pa­tion and anx­i­ety un­like any­thing they’ve known since the 1999 re­lease of the first “Star Wars” pre­quel, “The Phantom Men­ace” — a film that grossed $1 bil­lion glob­ally but was largely seen as a cre­ative let­down.

Though some “Star Wars” devo­tees were ini­tially dis­mayed by the no­tion of Dis­ney buy­ing Lu­cas­film, the gen­eral mood among fans has set­tled into one of cau­tious op­ti­mism.

“So far I think Dis­ney have been great ste­wards of ‘Star Wars,’ ” said writer-direc­tor Kyle New­man, who made a 2009 com­edy about ra­bid “Star Wars” fans called “Fan­boys” and will be at­tend­ing his sev­enth Cel­e­bra­tion this week. “They’re a char­ac­ter-based com­pany, and ‘Star Wars’ is one of the strong­est col­lec­tions of char­ac­ters there is, in terms of global recog­ni­tion. They have a plan to ex­pand it, cap­i­tal­ize on it, rein­tro­duce it to peo­ple — and, of course, that’s where every­body’s cau­tion comes in. Be­cause they could make a mis­step.”

In Abrams, Dis­ney has a direc­tor who pre­vi­ously re­vived the dor­mant “Star Trek” fran­chise for Para­mount Pic­tures. That said, there are al­ways risks for any stu­dio in of­fer­ing an early peek at its wares, even at an event as friendly as Cel­e­bra­tion.

Fans can pounce on any per­ceived blun­der (a brief shot in the “Episode VII” teaser of a lightsaber with a cross­guard ig­nited fierce de­bate among fans), and neg­a­tive im­pres­sions can be ce- mented at In­ter­net speed.

For Dis­ney — which has also brought two other pop cul­ture pow­er­houses, Marvel and Pixar, un­der its wing in the last decade — a lot is rid­ing on get­ting the movies right, said Alexia Quad­rani, an­a­lyst at JPMor­gan.

“If you want to de­velop a Star Wars theme park in the Walt Dis­ney parks, you want a suc­cess­ful movie to drive at­ten­dance,” Quad­rani said. “If you’re go­ing to sell con­sumer prod­ucts, you want to have a suc­cess­ful movie to drive de­mand for those prod­ucts. So the suc­cess of the film is def­i­nitely at the cen­ter of the po­ten­tial benefits to the other busi­nesses in Dis­ney.... But all the in­di­ca­tors that we can see at this early point give us rea­son to be very op­ti­mistic.”

In­deed, with the film in­dus­try show­ing re­newed strength at the box of­fice this year, ex­pec­ta­tions for the box of­fice of “Episode VII” at this point couldn’t be much higher. Re­leased in May 1977, the orig­i­nal “Star Wars” set the tem­plate for the kind of mass-ap­peal, highly mer­chan­dised pop­corn block­busters that have now be­come the back­bone of Hol­ly­wood.

But for all the comic­book, sci-fi and fan­tasy fran­chises that have fol­lowed in its wake — with the up­com­ing se­quel “The Avengers: Age of Ul­tron” just the lat­est ex­am­ple — there is still noth­ing quite like “Star Wars.” “We’re go­ing to have to pre­pare our­selves for a De­cem­ber open­ing week­end the likes of which we’ve never seen be­fore,” Der­garabe­dian said.

“A big open­ing in De­cem­ber is $75- to $80 mil­lion, but I think this movie is go­ing to blow the doors off the records. It’s been al­most 40 years, and peo­ple still get goose bumps when the first bars of that ‘ Star Wars’ theme crescendo. Not many movies — or re­ally any popular art — can do that.”

For a hard-core fan like New­man — who has even seen the much-ma­ligned “Phantom Men­ace” “prob­a­bly 100 times” — the next eight months may be a painfully long time to wait. But there will be no short­age of “Star Wars” ma­nia to keep him oc­cu­pied.

“Af­ter the sum­mer comes to an end, it’s go­ing to be all ‘Star Wars,’ ” New­man said. “It’s go­ing to be an in­sane sec­ond half of the year. Comic books, nov­els, toys — it’s go­ing to be a ‘Star Wars’ bo­nanza.”

Lu­casf ilm Dis­ney

“STAR WARS EPISODE VII” doesn’t open till Dec. 18, but an Ana­heim expo start­ing Thurs­day may at­tract 40,000 fans.

Getty Images

DIS­NEY PAID $4 BIL­LION to ac­quire the fran­chise from cre­ator Ge­orge Lu­cas, above, in 2012. Dis­ney wants to as­sure fans that the uni­verse that Lu­cas cre­ated is in good hands.

Los An­ge­les Times

STARS from the orig­i­nal tril­ogy — in­clud­ing Mark Hamill, left, Car­rie Fisher and Har­ri­son Ford, above in the 1977 movie — re­turn in the new film with a new gen­er­a­tion of ac­tors.

Lu­casf ilm Dis­ney

THE NEW “STAR WARS” film, with John Boyega, above, “is go­ing to blow the doors off the records,” said Paul Der­garabe­dian of box-of­fice tracker Ren­trak.

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