The Empire sells out: 'Star Wars' marketing at an all-time high
Keith Sintay felt ill, or at least, that’s what he wanted his colleagues to think.
The senior character animator at Industrial Light and Magic and 1991 Central Michigan University alumnus jumped from his seat, navigating the row of legs blocking an aisle in the cramped Anaheim Convention Center theater. Sintay moved out into the lobby just as the lights went dim.
“They had us go in a theater and didn’t tell us what we were going to see,” Sintay said. “They then said ‘We have a surprise for you. You’re going to see 20 minutes of raw uncut footage.’”
Sintay attended last year’s “Star Wars” Celebration in Anaheim, but was determined to avoid all “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” spoilers. The probability of successfully navigating a corporate event is approximately 3,720 to one and his plan was almost ruined by director JJ Abrams himself.
“I’ve shielded myself from all of it,” Sintay said. “I don’t search around for it on the Internet. I don’t watch any of the trailers. I quite literally faked sick (to avoid spoilers).”
The marketing pitch for “Star Wars” merchandise and associated hype is at an all-time high. With weeks away from its release date, the usual onslaught of”Star Wars” toys, books and apparel have flooded supermarket shelves.
For people like Sintay and School of Broadcasting and Cinematic Arts professorJeff Smith, the over-saturation has the potential to ruin their experience watching film in theaters.
“I’m a little worried about this end of it because it seems they’re going farther than normal,” said Smith, who teaches a course on the the flow of content across multiple media platforms. “Especially when you have a big company like Disney (which now owns “Star Wars”). They can take a few more risks than (previous owner of the franchise) LucasFilm, could have.”
In that push to sell a large brand like “Star Wars,” Disney runs the risk of burning out its audience before the movie even lands, Smith said. Even worse, some toy and product descriptions contain content spoilers that could damage a fan’s enjoyment of the film.
A quick look at “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” products shows just how far Disney and its partners are pushing. Covergirl has a new line of makeup for the film, a dark and light collection that lets consumers “choose their side.” Duck Tape brand duct tape even has a ”Star Wars” roll for easy mends on the Millennium Falcon.
“We could see it really infest other weird properties,” Smith said. Imagine if you had ‘Spongebob Squarepants’ episodes where he’s pitching ‘Star Wars.’ Or McDonalds going to the point where they’re not just doing toys but wearing Imperial Remnant uniforms. Anything that creates an eye roll moment, you know it’s gone too far.”
Overwhelming hype is hardly a new phenomenon for “Star Wars.” What is new, however, is how easily fans can access this media.
“One of the greatest things to happen to fandom is the convergence on the Internet,” Smith said. “Between Facebook and Twitter, you can reach out to the cast, directors and producers, and they can and often do answer back. Before we had this, the only way to reach out and connect with someone by sending a letter and hoping their agent would pass it along.”
Access can be a blessing and a curse, particularly for fans with jobs in the movie industry. Sintay has worked on big budget blockbusters for Marvel and the Transformers movies. He’s even helped animate Disney classics like “Pocahontas” and “Mulan.” “Star Wars” is more than a fandom for Sintay, it is an early influence that fueled his desire to work in the special effects industry.
“In all of the making-of documentaries, you learn that all the artists who worked at ILM had to invent that stuff,” he said. “Cameras that remembered movements to capture the same shot, all of that was new and had to be developed by those guys. ‘A New Hope’ had like 30 screen elements that were composited into three frames of film. Some of the spaceship and lightsaber scenes had over 200.”
Ironically, a sense of wonder drove him to a career that now ruins movies for him. At any point within the last few years, Sintay could have easily taken a step out of his office and seen puppets and animated characters still in production for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” The only way he said he’d ever spoil himself was if he actually got to work on it.
“I’m so close to the business now that I just can’t see it in the same way,” Sintay said. “I would know exactly how these effects are done. I worked on ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ and it had no surprises to it.”
A large part of the magic is lost. Sintay said that’s why he faked sick – to keep some of that magic alive.
“I didn’t want to know who was cast in it; I didn’t want to know the story. I didn’t even want to know the title of the film, initially,” Sintay said. “I remember calling my Mom (saying) ‘there’s people out there who would give their left arm to be in there with the director and producer to see it, and I’m shielding myself from it. I just want it to be a surprise.”