A Love Letter to Nostalgia in Movie Marketing (and Star Wars)

Star Wars

I was on ESPN.com for the first time in my life on Monday, October 19th of this year. Why? Because the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer was set to premiere during the halftime show of Monday night football, and without a TV, all I could do was watch the game updates in hope that it would give some clue to when the trailer would premiere on YouTube.

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The first full length theatrical trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, probably the most anticipated sequel in film history, racked up 112 million online views in only 24 hours. It had everything die-hard fans had hoped for: X-Wings, derelict Star Destroyers, the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo, burnt remnants of Darth Vader’s mask. The two minute preview was unapologetic and even relentless in its use of nostalgic images that have not been seen on the silver screen since 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Even the music alone was a tour de force of longing. Similar to the Jurassic World trailer from last November, which aimed for our heartstrings with a poignant piano composition of John William’s iconic Jurassic Park theme, the marketing for Star Wars used the same approach, targeting our hearts with a full dose of that lovin’ feelin’ of sentimentality.

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Just as we’re all suckers for remixes of our favorite pop or R&B songs, Disney’s marketing machine did more than just recycle tracks from the 30-odd-year-old film scores. Guest composers John Samuel Hanson and Frederick Lloyd individually composed arrangements of Han Solo and Princess Leia’s love theme and the Force theme respectively. Modern studies have shown music to be one of the strongest catalysts for nostalgia, and the new arrangements give the trailer an appropriate mix of familiar and fresh to underscore Disney’s sentimental approach to selling The Force Awakens.

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Nostalgia was originally thought of as a neurological disease, but it is now seen as a powerful tool to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety through a feeling of connectedness and sentimentality for the past. This sensation, often described as a mixture of happiness and sadness, has been found in people as young as the age of 7. The word nostalgia, contrary to what you’ve heard on Mad Men, comes from the Greek words “nóstos” and “álgos,” which collectively mean “an ache to return home.” The new Star Wars film is the first since the prequel films of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which were universally panned and viewed as a large step backwards for the franchise. The producers of The Force Awakens trailer knew the marketing challenge of what they were up against, and in a way, the new film’s nostalgic approach to marketing is damage control. The solution after the prequel debacle was simple: give the fans what they yearn for, give them what they’ve always wanted to see, and let them feel as if they are home again.

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The theatrical trailer spends its first minute introducing the new cast of young heroes and villains, but this is all but a brief appetizer. Just as Han and Leia’s theme cues, the Millennium Falcon flies into frame, on the run from Tie Fighter baddies. We feel as if we’re watching a redux of the riveting chase scenes from 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, the dark, romantic and unchallenged fan favorite of the film series. Cue Harrison Ford’s voice over as classic character Han Solo, as the music transitions to a slower, choral interpretation of Luke Skywalker’s character theme, and you know that fanboy tears are being shed all around the world. And we haven’t even gotten to visual symphony of X-wing vs. Tie Fighter dogfights, Stormtroopers, and a cameo from Luke Skywalker in the trailer’s climax. The trailer winds down with the a peaceful melodic excerpt from the theme for Luke and Leia featured at the finale of Return of the Jedi, the film for which The Force Awakens will serve as a direct sequel. While quite ambiguous in terms of the narrative, the trailer expertly reminds us that what was old is new again and that we fans have been waiting to relive the familiar for so long.

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The early marketing for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was unique in its apathy towards showcasing brand new ideas and its decision to just highlight what is already universally loved. And now with winter settling in, Disney could not have picked a better time for its campaign to reach its crescendo. The cold weather is naturally increasing nostalgic tendencies even more, and with The Force Awakens just days away, we fans could not be more prepared to return to that galaxy far, far away. Because after all, it’s home.

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