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The Force Awakens: lessons from the biggest brand in film

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is already the most successful film in US box office history. In the few short weeks since its international release it has broken dozens of records and breathed new life into what was a damaged franchise.

To say that fans were nervous about this most recent episode after the disappointment of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels is an understatement. Even more nervous were the Disney executives who paid $4 billion for the rights to the Star Wars universe. On this one movie rested the future of one of the most cherished franchises in cinema.

So what can the success of The Force Awakens teach us about brand management and communications?

Same, but different

The original Star Wars (episode IV) had a very simple plot. It’s a Western set in space. The bad guys kidnap the girl and it’s up to a motley crew of cowboys to rescue her and defeat the villains. This familiar story was given a fresh twist by throwing in a sci-fi setting and a mystical power – the Force.

The prequels instead opted for a complicated, boring and frequently nonsensical look at intergalactic politics. Audiences wondered if they’d walked into the wrong cinema.

The Force Awakens returned to the old template, but brought enough new twists to keep it from feeling stale. It was smart enough to play to its own strengths.

Give the people what they want

The Force Awakens was a movie made for fans by a fan. JJ Abrams reverence for the series was well known, even before he came on board as Episode VII’s director. What this meant was that he knew intimately what it was that fans loved about the series.

Tiny moments like referencing the levitating ball Luke Skywalker uses for his early Jedi training might not seem like much, but they can create a powerful connection between a film and its audience.

Collaboration is key

Although George Lucas wrote and directed Star Wars, when he moved on to The Empire Strikes Back he was smart enough to bring in new collaborators. The result – the best film sequel this side of The Godfather Part II.

Despite this success, when it came to the prequels Lucas took complete creative control. He wrote and directed all three films and they were a disaster. It’s great to have a vision, but the reality is even the greatest geniuses have bad ideas. Working with a team not only brings new ideas to the table, it means weaker ideas will be challenged and either improved or discarded.

The Force Awakens drew on input from a number of writers and then came together under the guidance of a director who knew how to collaborate. It’s a model Disney is sticking with for the remainder of the series with new directors coming on board for both Episode VIII and IX.