Even in the social media age, some movie studios still see fans as zoo animals to be force-fed: We, the cool film people, will tell you, the easily manipulated consumers, what to like. Other Hollywood companies have developed a true appreciation for the geek masses, but they are still learning how to hone a strategy.
And then there is the “Star Wars” studio.
As creating – and controlling – fan communities have become crucial to the success of all kinds of movies, the company that remains the most skilled at that art is Lucasfilm. Unlike most big studios, it has a full-time head of fan relations. Employees respond to handwritten letters (yes, they still flow in, mostly from children), and pump out exclusive tidbits on six social networks each day, with materials lined up a month in advance.
The heart of Lucasfilm’s fan operation is a biennial gathering called “Star Wars” Celebration, the 10th installment of which started on Thursday and is expected to draw 45,000 amateur Jedis, Wookiees and Stormtroopers over four days.
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“How many out there waited all night long?” Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, asked the crowd inside the Anaheim Convention Center as the event began.
A roar rose up: The line to enter the exhibition hall began forming at 5 a.m. Wednesday, or about 28 hours before the doors opened. To sustain the faithful, Lucasfilm employees arrived with 200 pizzas late Wednesday.
During this year’s gathering, more than 30 hours of “Star Wars” events will be streamed on StarWars.com in a partnership with Verizon. A droid demolition derby, a guy who carves “Star Wars” characters out of vegetables, a session with Princess Leia, aka Carrie Fisher – it is all happening here.
“Just being around my fellow fans makes me feel comfortable in my own skin,” said Nitzan Harel, who was dressed as the Jedi character Master Secura, replete with blue face paint and droopy turquoise “brain tails.”
A giant marketing stunt in galactic clothing? Sure. Lucasfilm wants to rally the faithful before the December release of “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.”
Disney, which bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, is also promoting “Star Wars Rebels,” an animated series shown on Disney XD, its cable network for boys. Moreover, Disney wants to prove to fans, many of whom had mixed feelings about its purchase of Lucasfilm, that their beloved “Star Wars” is in capable hands.
But the trick is to make fans feel tended to rather than managed, and Lucasfilm pulls that off with year-round tactics that many rival studios have not quite committed to.
“You can’t fake it,” said Mary Franklin, who has led Lucasfilm’s fan efforts since 2010.
For instance, Lucasfilm has a long history of plucking employees from the fan ranks. Franklin was recruited after the studio noticed an online “Star Wars” fan club she created while living in Cordova, Alaska. Matt Martin, Lucasfilm’s manager of digital content and community relations, started at the company in 2002 as a volunteer at Comic-Con International, the annual pop culture convention in San Diego.
Kennedy, who took over Lucasfilm from George Lucas in 2012, hired fans to work in the “creature department” of “The Force Awakens” after attending the last Celebration, which was held in Germany in 2013.
“It was literally jaw-dropping,” she said, speaking of an exhibit of fan-constructed R2-D2s. Hiring amateur droid builders not only makes the community feel valued, she said, but “it brought authenticity” to the film.
Lucasfilm also stands apart when it comes to fan monitoring and responsiveness. Franklin and a dozen other staff members answer fan email, Twitter posts and Facebook messages “constantly, all day,” Martin said.
“I know the hardest core of the hard core, and I try to respond to those people immediately,” he added, noting that some have his personal contact information. “But we try really hard to answer absolutely everything.”
Fan mail has mostly gone digital. If studios do still respond to old-fashioned letters – some just dump them in the trash – the senders typically receive a form-letter response. But not at Lucasfilm. Consider its reply to a recent message from 7-year-old Colin Gilpatric.
Colin, who has autism, was disturbed to read in a “Star Wars” book that Jedi Knights are not supposed to marry. That policy needed to change, he decided. With the help of his mother, Peggy Gilpatric, he mailed a letter to Lucasfilm saying as much.
“To our complete shock, we got a response,” Gilpatric said. The response, written as a Jedi would speak, told Colin that Jedis could marry in some instances.
“For them to give him that little piece of magic will make our entire family forever loyal,” Gilpatric said, noting with a laugh that Colin began asking so many girls in his class to marry him that a teacher sent a concerned note home.
In some ways, Lucasfilm’s approach may be impossible for other studios to replicate. With the Indiana Jones franchise in hibernation, Lucasfilm has only one brand to worry about. Lucas also ran the studio like a mom-and-pop operation: If he wanted a robust fan department, he simply devoted the funds. Most studios do not work that way.
“Star Wars” is also a unique movie property, set in a world that captivates people with its specific creatures, vehicles, linguistics and planets while also providing a wide enough canvas to allow followers to let their imaginations run wild.
Disney executives are still getting used to the intensity of the “Star Wars” fan base. “Even we are surprised at the fervor,” Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, told analysts on a conference call last year. Kennedy, whose producing credits include movies like “Jurassic Park” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” said the frenzy surrounding Lucasfilm “ended up being far bigger than I ever imagined.”
Steve Sansweet, who retired as Lucasfilm’s head of fan relations in 2010, noted that companies often get in their own way. “Not only was I saying to fans, ‘OK, this is what you need to know about working with a company,' I was explaining back to Lucasfilm why what they were doing was not a bad thing but an amazing thing,” Sansweet said.
Disney, no stranger to passionate fan bases, only created a formal apparatus for those followers in 2009. The model in many ways was Lucasfilm: Disney hired a formal head of fan relations and began holding biennial conventions here called D23 Expo. The next one will be held in August, and the event has also expanded to Japan.
Such conventions have grown exponentially in recent years - WonderCon, VidCon, Hello Kitty Con - but few top “Star Wars” Celebration for pure spectacle. A large portion of the 115 panels offered here were created with direct fan involvement; Lucasfilm puts out a call for proposals and picks the best (or at least the feasible).
The scene outside the Anaheim Convention Center on Thursday morning was nothing short of mayhem, as thousands of mostly adult fans clamored to get inside. A quartet of men dressed in Jedi capes performed a synchronized dance number as squads of Stormtroopers patrolled in head-to-toe white plastic.
“Who’s going to cry if you see something amazing today?” a DJ asked the crowd as the morning’s main presentation started. The arena erupted in cheers – and a few tears.