Disney releases the force as it creates global Star Wars merchandising event

Disney is planning a huge marketing push and has got a number of UK retailers on board for what it has dubbed “Force Friday” as it looks to ensure the upcoming Star Wars film is a success both on and off the screen.

Tomorrow (4 September) is “Force Friday”, a term coined by Disney to kickstart sales of merchandise and toys around its movie franchise Star Wars. Starting in the US before rolling out to other global markets (including the UK at midnight tonight) the firm will live stream fans unboxing Star Wars merchandise for 18 hours on YouTube.

It is also holding a number of events at its own stores aimed at generating excitement and interest around products for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which hits cinemas on 18 December. People attending events will be encouraged to share their experiences on social media using the hashtags #ForceFriday and #MidnightMadness.

“Every lightsaber, every action figure, every LEGO set tells a story for generations of Star Wars fans and this global event is a celebration of those stories. We’re excited to be part of the countdown to this enormous movie moment,” says Josh Silverman, executive vice president of global licensing at Disney Consumer Products.

Brands queue up to drive sales

In London a flagship event will be held at the Disney Store on Oxford Street. Fans are invited to dress up and join a queue to gain access to the shop at midnight when they’ll be able to experience a “galactic line-up” of merchandise, take part in competitions and see product demos.

Disney is also counting on other brands to kickstart sales surrounding the new movie. UK retailers including Toys R Us, Smyths and Forbidden Planet, as well as Target and Walmart in the US, will also be opening their doors at midnight to give fans a first-look at the merchandise on offer. Customers will be offered incentives for getting in first such as limited edition posters.

On offer is a huge range of products. Hasbro is the main toy manufacturer after it agreed a $225m deal with Disney when it bought the rights to Star Wars in 2013 but other toy companies including LEGO and card company Topps also product merchandise.

EA has the rights to produce Star Wars games and is planning multiple titles across consoles, PCs, online and mobile. Disney has also signed up leading brands such as Cover Girl to make products around the release of the film.

Then there are the opportunities around products ranging from birthday cakes to bed linen and Bluetooth speakers.

Capitalising on merchandise sales

That Disney is keen to capitalise on merchandise sales is no surprise. Consumers have spent more than $20bn on Star Wars products since the first film came out in 1977, according to the firm.

For die-hard fans it has become an important part of how they interact with the films, says Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, which makes the movies.

“Star Wars toys have inspired multiple generations to relive the experience of the movies and to create new adventures all their own.”

Kathleen Kennedy, president, Lucasfilm

According to The NPD Group, the UK toy market was worth £785m in 2014, equal to more than a quarter of total toy sales. Plus licensed toys are driving market growth, up by 14% while the rest of the toy market saw rises of just 2%.

At the moment Frozen is the biggest license globally with $960m worth of sales last year. It was followed by Star Wars on $724m.

In the UK Frozen toys alone were worth £75m with Star Wars bringing in £49m.

Creating a global merchandising event

However, NPD expects Star Wars sales to reach a new level this year, worth £90m in the UK alone.

“Millions of fans all over the world – both big and small – are excited about the new Star Wars movie release. We expect that appeal to reach a new generation of consumers altogether,” says Frédérique Tutt, global industry analyst for The NPD Group.

Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association (LIMA), the trade organisation for the global licensing industry, estimates that licensing for TV, movies and “characters” was worth $5.28bn this year in the UK with Star Wars accounting for a “healthy chunk of that”.

Kelvyn Gardner, LIMA’s UK managing director, says Disney is clearly looking to leverage interest around the film. Generally speaking merchandise launches would usually happen around 4 weeks before a film’s release as reviews start appearing in the press.

“The level of expectation for Star Wars has led Disney to think it had better let stuff out early to ensure fans can get their hands on some product,” he says.

Tutt says that despite this the move is a surprise as Lucasfilm is usually so secretive about its movies, with merchandise bound to lead to clues about plot and characters.

“Launching three months prior to a film release is very unusual not only for the marketplace but also for Lucasfilm which has always been extremely secretive about any storyline or characters.

“This might be due in part to the late release of the movie with regard to Christmas and also very unique to Star Wars itself – the biggest evergreen license in the toy market which has enough awareness to pull together a global event such as this,” she explains.