LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - Luke Skywalker conquered the Dark Side in the previous "Star Wars" movies. His latest mission, in J.J. Abrams' "Star Wars: Episode VII -- The Force Awakens," is to capture Millennials.
The freshly rebooted saga will inevitably be a box office smash for Disney, the studio now behind the franchise, but for it to continue as a multi-billion-dollar juggernaut, it will need to speak to a generation of 20-year-olds raised on "The Hunger Games," "Avatar" and "Harry Potter," franchises that may feel more digitally savvy than Han Solo, Princess Leia and the growing generations of Skywalkers.
The first of Abrams' planned films, due out in December 2015, aims to set up an endless array of sequels, prequels and spinoffs. But, if Disney wants the saga of a galaxy far, far away to expand, it can't just be embraced by the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers who were weaned on the original trilogy in the '70s and '80s, as well as the three prequels George Lucas made in the late '90s and early aughts.
"'Star Wars' is going to be a blockbuster -- the question is how big can it be? They need Millennials to adopt the film and make it their own," says Chris Robichaud, CEO of marketing and public relations firm PMK-BNC, which recently partnered with USC's Annenberg school to study the cultural and political touchstones that define various generations. Those findings couldn't be more timely.
By 2016, Millennials will be the generation with the most buying power, supplanting Boomers atop the economic heap. Among the findings: Gen-Xers cite "E.T.," "Indiana Jones," and, yes, "Star Wars" as some of the sci-fi films that speak to their demographic, while Millennials are more likely to bring up "The Hunger Games" or "Avatar." Boomers embrace "Star Trek" and "2001: A Space Odyssey." The films cited are telling. The tale of good vs. evil in "Star Wars" is very different from that in "The Hunger Games" or "Avatar," and the ways those movies use the future to shine a light on issues that bedevil the present, such as economic inequality and ecological disaster.
"To Boomers and Gen X, sci-fi was an escape, a dream of the future," says Robichaud, "To Millennials, sci-fi is a blueprint; to them, anything is possible."
PMK-BNC also launched a digital strength index to measure the level of engagement of stars and celebrities on social media. In the case of "Star Wars," the top talent for "Episode VII" is late to the digital dance. Among the sequel's stars, Lupita Nyong'o, who is on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and other services, ranks highest, at 4, while Carrie Fisher and Andy Serkis both earn 3s. Among those whose only direct Internet presence is IMDb are Abrams and actors Harrison Ford, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver. Of course, the film's debut is still 13 months away, so there's plenty of time to register a Twitter handle.
"Millennials come from a more digitally engaged culture that's more instantaneous and personal," Robichaud says.