May the Force be with you this Christmas
- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - December 12, 2015 - 9:00am

My sister-in-law recently bought up a block of 50-plus seats for the Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiere in Manila on Dec. 17. I always thought the extreme fan attachment to all things Star Wars among my adoptive Filipino family was directly related to their gene pool; it turns out being among the first to see a Star Wars movie is some kind of Filipino birthright. They cheer madly — as they no doubt will on Dec. 17 — every time the opening scroll credits burst onto the screen amid a John Williams orchestral flourish.

The fact that Dec. 17 comes in the midst of the holiday countdown is some kind of cosmic arrangement — an early Christmas gift, if you will. If we didn’t know any better, we’d think the timing had been engineered by something much greater than coincidence — perhaps even The Force itself.

We spoke with Rob Gilby, managing director of Disney Southeast Asia, about the dedicated Star Wars fan base here, and how those fans really are at the heart of the franchise. In addition to multiple screenings (technically ahead of the US release in some times zones), there will be countdown clocks all over Metro Manila announcing the days and hours until the movie hits; a life-size X-Wing Fighter on display at SM Mall of Asia and Tie Fighter at SM North Edsa along with merchandise; not to mention innumerable tie-ups with retailers like SM Group, Folded & Hung, Toys R Us, Uniqlo, Globe Telecom and others. That’s just the products: the real fun stuff happens online, through rabid fans who join contests and social media campaigns — like the “Design a Stormtrooper Helmet” contest for which local cosplayer star Alodia is a finalist and campaign ambassador (“I’m a big fan,” says Gilby). There’s the globe-trotting 501st Legion, a dedicated group of Storm-trooper-attired Pinoy fans being tapped for the local launch (see RJ Ledesma’s “Getting Imperial” in Dec. 9 “M” section of STAR), and a slew of social media contests (see sidebar) designed to make you dream of a white Christmas — white as in Stormtrooper-style.

“The franchise is really fan-owned in a lot of ways,” says Gilby — though technically, of course, Disney bought LucasFilms Ltd. lock, stock and barrel for $4 billion last year. “I love how fans feel it’s their property, not just marketed to them; it’s something they own.”

He adds: “It’s the fans who make the screening really special. They queue up for tickets early, design and plan their costumes. It’s not just the movie, but really an event that they want to share with other people.”

And those fans are very protective of the story and its characters. Geek wars have erupted in public over whose Darth Maul makeup is the more authentic, whose Darth Vader breathing is more resonant. 

Southeast Asia is no slouch when it comes to rabid fans. For the “Design a Stormtrooper Helmet” contest, 166,000 entries came from SEA alone. Few brands spark so much loyalty and endless debate. “We have an online campaign starting this week called ‘Join The Force’ — it’s finding a way to let fans talk about their favorite fan memories of Star Wars. It really goes back to the themes, really saying, you’re the fans, celebrate the things you love about the Star Wars saga, and really feel a sense of ownership. It’s so much more authentic than taking a traditional campaign launch approach.”

How can Disney possibly miss with a franchise that is beloved by generation after generation? Well, we do remember the less-loved trilogy of prequels. Gilby is positive that this J.J. Abrams-helmed installment will restore the franchise to mint condition. “It’s very important to us. Our fans are at the core of our focus. They are critical, and we love them for loving the property, and we intend to keep on respecting the fans.” He says it starts with amazing storytellers: “You have J.J. writing with Lawrence Kasdan (Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi), producer Kathy Kennedy who worked with George Lucas on the other movies, you’ve got John Williams back for the score.” Abrams reportedly went back to core values: focusing on location shoots, the touch and feel of the sets and costumes, “to give it that authentic feel.”

“The best thing we can do for the fans is start with a story that respects the history of the saga, the characters, how it all began and yet take it to the next generation, with a new chapter in the story,” says Gilby. “If we deliver that, then our super fans have been served.”



It helps to have good local brand partners on the ground. “When we look at how we tie up with partners, it’s about making sure we have a set of guidelines that are true to the history of Star Wars, which really draws on evergreen elements like The Force, the multigenerational rite of passage, the hero’s journey — all of these elements that are key to the identity of the brand.” He singled out Globe’s “Fill Your Galaxy With Wonder” campaign, and its heartwarming video. “The father-daughter relationship is touching. It deals with families apart, working abroad, bringing them together, and all in the guise of Star Wars. It’s a great example of bringing the brand alive in a local way, but staying true to the brand.”

There’s the usual bugaboo of piracy in these parts — and we don’t mean the Caribbean kind — but Gilby is also confident that people will choose authentic merchandise. “If you partner with legitimate retailers, there’s less demand for pirated product because you’re already filling some of the demand.”

Visiting Disney’s D23 fan convention back in May, I was amazed at the generations brought together by Disney’s classic characters and stories, but particularly by Star Wars, which gives the company an almost surefire platform to grow the brand. “It’s a multigenerational experience,” says Gilby, who notes his five-year-old son is already a big Star Wars fan. “I’ll be taking him to the premiere, of course. We’re seeing children, parents, grandparents, talking about seeing the movie together. So that’s really at the heart of what we’re doing.”

So this holiday season, may the Force — and the credit cards — be with you.


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