AOTC Was The Worst-Promoted Film Of The Saga (So Far)

In truth, ANH might actually have been the worst-promoted film of the saga because 20th Century Fox did not think it was going to be successful. They thought it was going to be a weird sci-fi movie that would breeze in and out in a few weeks. Its first trailer was hilariously cheap (though back then trailers weren’t a big deal) and Fox didn’t even bother to spring for a proper Hollywood red carpet premiere. Charlie Lippencott had to fight for anyone making toys to pay attention to him and hustled for some air time at Comic Con and Worldcon in 1976. They had to beg Stan Lee at Marvel into making an adaptation. The thing is, nobody would have realized this today because of what ANH had become. There was so much mania AFTER the film’s release, nobody realizes or remembers how little there was beforehand. It was a movie that made it on word of mouth back when social media meant the neighbor’s back fence, the office water cooler, the kitchen telephone, and the school playground.

Ever since then, however, Lucasfilm has been looked upon as a genius of marketing. Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t, but when every subsequent Star Wars film came out, you bet everyone not hiding in a cave knew about it. That was especially true when TPM came out in 1999. A huge amount of the hype wasn’t generated by the studio or by Lucasfilm, but they certainly had no problem riding the wave until the film’s release.

When AOTC came out in 2002, I found myself asking, “What happened?” In terms of keeping fandom informed and doling out tantalizing tidbits in the years before the film’s release, they did a great job. I remember the excitement that came with every “Selects” photo from the set. It was a big deal when Hayden Christensen got picked to play Anakin. Rick McCallum was always talking to the Insider and Starlog or what have you. I can tell you the paps got more photos from the backlot of Fox Australia studios than anyone has been able to get from the Ep VII set, drones or no drones. Celebration II in glamorous Indianapolis, IN was a big pre-release pep rally. But that was singing to the amen chorus. Most of us who deeply cared about Star Wars were pre-sold and would’ve seen the movie anyway. The problem was reiterating the place of Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon and the mythology of our time in order to get regular filmgoers psyched to see the film.

The first time I realized there was a problem was when AOTC’s Midnight Madness merchandise drop occurred in April 2002. By then I think we all realized that the massive wave of stuff in 1999 was TOO much, more than what the market would bear no matter how successful the film was. So I thought the amount of toys issued was just right. But I was horribly disappointed at the paltry amount of merch aimed at teens and adults. I went to Suncoast and saw only ONE style of t-shirt. I hoped to find more at Celebration II but aside from the event souvenir shirts, I didn’t find any more. I actually had to buy a husky boy’s t-shirt in the kids’ department at K-Mart to show my support for AOTC. The only other AOTC-themed shirt I got that summer was an unlicensed beauty from the late, lamented Senator Theater in Baltimore, MD.

But I should’ve realized there were problems before then, hindsight being 20/20 and all of that. I don’t think the title announcement was done all of that well and Lucasfilm was unprepared for the media bash-fest that came in its wake (it also would’ve helped to have told the main cast the title beforehand instead of waiting a reporter run into a boozed-up Ewan McGregor to ask what he thought). The teaser trailers were great, but if it was me, I would’ve put the internet exclusive trailer in theaters with movies like “Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone” or “Fellowship of the Ring” and the one that focused more on Anakin/Padme with movies that appealed more to young women. Lucasfilm and Fox failed to realize that AOTC could’ve really reached a new market for Star Wars, teen girls and young adult women.

I also thought while some of the ads leading up to AOTC’s release were good (not so much the one I’m getting to in a minute…), they were not nearly as good or as attention-getting as the amazing “tone poem” ads for TPM. The one ad that made me cringe was the “who da man/Yo-da man” ad. Sure it was a great idea to promote the crowd-pleasing Yoda vs. Dooku battle but the ad was dopey. But you know what offended me the most about it? It was actually piggybacking off of “Spider Man.” No, just NO.

A Star Wars movie should never, EVER try to capitalize off of someone else. Doing that was in my humble opinion waving a white flag at Sony and acknowledging that something else was the big movie of the summer, much the same way the trailer for “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” said, “If you see one movie this summer, see Star Wars. If you see two movies this summer, see ‘Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.’” Star Wars should NOT do that. It’s second fiddle to no one, baby, and unfortunately, they forgot that. But regardless of the quality of the t.v. ads, they quickly vanished after the movie’s release. Great way to remind folks the movie’s out and still playing in theaters!

Another fail was handling the media around the time of the film’s release. Maybe I’m in the minority on this one but I thought that doing scatter shot charity screenings and not a big red carpet event with most of the cast somewhere in the U.S. was a mistake. It didn’t make the film’s release seem like a real event. Lucasfilm and Fox seemed to have no strategy in dealing with negative press or another backlash, something they should have learned from TPM. The biggest media failure was the horrible, infamous live show from Skywalker Ranch on CNN, hosted by Connie Chung. Did any of you besides me suffer through that crap? Chung was unprepared, terribly uninformed, and decided to go negative in her interviews. I remember her questions were just embarrassing. Rapper Master P did a far better job interviewing the cast on MTV’s special. I thought the best cable news promo AOTC ever got was Bill O’Reilly putting the smackdown on a bunch of ridiculous racial card players who claimed the movie was racist.

The single biggest oversight though was not taking advantage of Star Wars’s silver anniversary to promote the film. This should’ve been a big deal an a no-brainer but it was all but forgotten. What better way to celebrate a quarter century of Star Wars than with new Star Wars? You’d think it would’ve been obvious, especially since the 20th anniversary of Star Wars was tied in with the Special Editions, but Lucasfilm and Fox seemed completely oblivious to the idea. It baffles me to this day.

Why did they drop the ball with AOTC? I have a few theories. One is that the backlash to TPM spooked them so bad, they went in too timid with AOTC, perhaps believing that the backlash was sparked by the massive hype before TPM’s release. That’s not an unreasonable reaction but they retreated far more than they should have. Another theory I have is that they also could have been overconfident, figuring the excitement will generate itself as it had before and they didn’t need to worry too much about ginning up filmgoers. Either way, they failed to take into account the huge amounts of money Sony was dumping to promote “Spider Man,” which started getting free publicity in the wake of September 11, 2001 when it had to change its original teaser trailer because it featured the now-destroyed World Trade Center. If I could put on my Alex Jones Signature Tin Foil Hat for a moment, I also have a conspiracy theory that Sony or other rival studios might have paid people to go on camera after AOTC screenings and complain to news crews how disappointing it was and it might have influenced some media types to talk down the film as boring, disappointing, stupid, etc. it was. It’s Hollywood; I can totally believe that happened. Lucasfilm and Fox also failed to take into account the popularity of Harry Potter and LOTR, two film series I could’ve told you years beforehand were going to be very successful. Neither series had a film out the same time as AOTC but the problem was that core audience of sf/fantasy filmgoers didn’t only have Star Wars on their movie calendars anymore and they didn’t have to wait three years for another installment: sequels to both films were out by the holiday season of 2002. They stole a little bit of Star Wars’s thunder and its specialness, and there was no strategy to deal with that.

Another theory is that the people charged with coming up with a marketing plan and promotion plan had no idea what they had with AOTC. TPM had the hook of being the first new SW film in 16 years with plenty of iconic new faces: Darth Maul, Jar Jar, Queen Amidala, podracing Anakin, etc.. ROTS at least had the hook of, “Woo hoo, Darth Vader’s in the house!” With AOTC, nobody could find a hook. Now I could’ve told them, “You have clones and you have Yoda,” but it seems like everybody was utterly confounded by the movie which makes me wonder if they were able to see significant amounts of it beforehand or if they got to see anything at all.

While AOTC still succeeded at the box office, I also remember how it was all about Star Wars with the kids in 1999 but it was all about “Spider Man” with the kids in 2002. Too many missed opportunities.

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17 Responses to “AOTC Was The Worst-Promoted Film Of The Saga (So Far)”

  1. M. Marshall Says:

    I also remember Lays’ potato chips, Star Wars Episode II crunch cereal and Star Wars themed fruit snacks. There was also Star Wars Go-Gurt. And I ate them all. But your right that there wasn’t as much of a merchandise frenzy as with TPM. Although I’m wondering if location had something to do with it. I live in the CA Bay Area and I was able to find an AOTC shirt for adults (in fact it was too big for me). In hindsight it seems ironic that the “superior” Spider-Man movies have been remade and fans are arguing as to which series is better, while we SW fans know that they’ll never remake the prequels (I hope).

    • lazypadawan Says:

      I hope not either!

      It is funny that Sony decided to reboot “Spider Man” just a decade after its $400 million dollar baby. I guess it doesn’t think that much of the films that made it a ton of money.

      I remember those AOTC snacks, cereal, and so forth. Another thing: AOTC was the only Star Wars film without a fast food tie-in. ANH, TESB, and ROTJ had Burger King (ANH also had Burger Chef but that was a regional chain). The Special Editions and TPM had tie-ins with the triad of Pizza Hut/Taco Bell/KFC. ROTS had Burger King. Even freakin’ Clone Wars had a McDonald’s tie-in. Subway is running a Rebels tie-in for its kids’ meals and since Subway still has a deal with Disney, I’m betting a 6″ Italian BMT it will do a tie-in with Episode VII. But not poor AOTC. Maybe it was good news for my health but fast food is part of the Star Wars experience, dang it!

  2. ladylavinia1932 Says:

    When one thinks about it . . . does it really matter? AOTC made money, even if it wasn’t the #1 movie of 2002. And it exists. I can watch it time and again, thanks to my DVD copy.

  3. jarjarbacktattooguy Says:

    There are articles floating around out there from 2002 about how much less FOX was spending on marketing than Sony/Columbia was on Spider-Man.

    They said that they thought Star Wars would sell itself and that it didn’t need a big marketing campaign.

    I don’t think the Taco Bell/KFC/Pizza Hut promo had been considered a success for Episode I. The biggest promo partner they brought back for AOTC was Frito-Lay so perhaps that had been a success?

    I think the Lucasfilm people were very good at selling Star Wars to the geek crowd but they have to sell to everyone else still too.

    That MTV special sounds like it was effective. They always have to market to the hipster crowd. Star Wars is a challenge in some ways because it can be perceived as a kids franchise by some or old fashioned by others. How many other films in ’02 were still getting fully painted posters?

    I think the film did play up the sex appeal of Natalie and Hayden, but did those two do enough promotion on TV? I really don’t remember much of the celebrity promotion for AOTC.

    The thing was…nobody knew who Hayden was and Nat hadn’t really become a big star yet. Liam Neeson was gone and in many ways they were rebooting the franchise again with this film.

    Probably should have been more magazine covers with Natalie grasping onto Hayden’s bare chest (out of character). And more MTV specials with the young stars “chillin” with Britney Spears and Master P.

    You are right that they should have done more commercials highlighting their characters relationship but I think they are afraid they will scare boys and geeks off if they do that.

    Honestly though…by 2002 I really think a lot of people were just burned out by Star Wars in general. I do not think it was a backlash against the prequels, per se’. The hype machine had been going full force since the mid-90s. I think there was a bit of franchise fatigue.

    And Spider-Man was something all new.

    • lazypadawan Says:

      “Spider Man” was the movie that kicked off the superhero movie craze still dominating Hollywood to this day. But I disagree people were burned out on Star Wars. Instead, Hollywood went from merely reading the 1970s/1980s Lucas-Spielberg playbook to finally mastering it.

  4. PrinceOfNaboo Says:

    Very good an informative summary!

    I’d like to add two or three things:

    1.) I also think they reduced their marketing due to the backlesh. However, I also think they didn’t really understand the origins of the backlesh for TPM. It didn’t came from the general and casual audience, it came from fans! Casual moviegoers (who HAVE to be the target of a marketing campaign) didn’t hate TPM and didn’t create the negativity. The negativity came from a loud part of the fans. Because of that, I was even more necessary to put Star Wars in a positive light with a good promo strategy. They didn’t achieve that fully and we’re still cursed with hating FANS (not casual moviegoers) today.
    This also leads into my second point…

    2.) The A/P romance: I agree, they absolutely missed a chance here. They should have marketed the film specifically to that audience as well. The audience doesn’t have to find you, YOU have to find the audience. That’s what marketing is for and they failed in that regard. A/P fans had to find Star Wars, they weren’t “picke up” by the marketing maschine. They should have promoted the romance part from the very beginning in 2001 onwards. It was a missed opportunity, because again: There was nobody to defend A/P from 2002 onwards, so the field was left to the old fans and haters who managed to put internet/geeek/hipster consciousness that A/P sucked. If Lucasfilm had been able to generate a considerbale A/P fanbase when they movie came out, they could have fought the old fans and haters.
    I mean even nowadays, there is a certain dedicate A/P fandom, but it took way too long for it to come into being. The battle of what#s geek/online/blockbuster mainstream was already lost.

    In general with the PT: I think Lucasfilm catered too much to the “old audience” with their marketing campaigns, which was idiotic because Lucas clearly made those films with new fans in mind as well. All of that led us to the situation that we have now: The old fans are in charge and define what SW is “supposed” to be. Lucasfilm missed the opportunity to highlight the “mother aspect” from TPM as much as they missed the opportunity to promote the “girly” romance in AOTC. Even with ROTS; they focused way too much on “how the OT came to be” than “what made Anakin fall?”. It’s about perception and what’s the focus of the whole thing.

    Now, it’s too late.

    • Tarrlok Says:

      I think it’s sad that Lucasfilm never properly promoted the PT after 2005. They tried to make TCW out to be its own thing, in spite of its obvious dependence on the PT as the unofficial Episode 2.5. Perhaps the grimness of ROTS influenced subsequent EU works, but that was about it.

      It seems that the roots of that went back as far as 2001/2002. By then were Lucasfilm’s marketing department already giving up on the PT concept in favour of selling AOTC and ROTS as preludes to the OT?

      Obviously, people working at Lucasfilm in the early 2000s were likely to be hardcore OT fans. Perhaps Lucas should have hired some people who had never even heard of Star Wars before instead of keeping marketing decisions within an OT-influenced echo chamber. A non-fan might have found it easier to appreciate what Lucas was trying to do with the PT and thus how to sell it.

      • lazypadawan Says:

        Tarrlok, maybe it’s unfair of me, but I’ve always believed that for many of Lucasfilm’s employees at the time, the OT was “magic” from their childhoods, while the PT was a job. And that might have affected attitudes.

      • Tarrlok Says:

        I’m sure they’re now happy that they’ll be helping SW “recapture the magic” that “we” remember from our childhoods (no doubt you’ve already heard PR to that effect). I just hope they include those whose childhoods were in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s in that group “we”.

        They obviously meant well, but frames of reference can be hard to change.

        Can you do an article on what you thought the strengths of the PT-era marketing campaigns were?

    • lazypadawan Says:

      Your last paragraph says it all.

  5. Eduardo Jencarelli Says:

    Bill O’Reilly being painted in a positive light? Easily the most bizarre thing I’ve read.

  6. Keith Palmer Says:

    I guess I’d rather do whatever tiny thing I can do even now to try and advance “satisfying interpretations” than proclaim the mistakes of others and dwell on them. Still, I do get how “box office gross” is at least a point in arguing “a lot of people didn’t have the instantaneous negative reaction you’ve convinced yourself you had.”

    When it comes to “what could they have promoted?”, though, I do get the feeling all the basic promotion for all Star Wars movies could be described as “action” and “invention.” However, if you’ll forgive me bringing in another Star Wars movie, I have been wondering for a while if, just as “fighting Yoda” was supposed to have been a “surprise,” the “struggle for Darth Vader” was likewise kept very much a surprise for Return of the Jedi, even from most of the cast and crew. As a result, the promotion I can remember from way back then seemed to focus on the “creatures,” and while that worked at the time, it eventually seemed to feed into the infamous dismissal “Jedi was just a bunch of Muppets”…

  7. Dave Strohmenger Says:

    I remember people at the time saying that “Attack of the Clones” wasn’t an ‘elegant title’. As if calling a movie “The Empire Strikes Back” is elegant. But remember, we’re not supposed to criticize TESB.

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