Update November 26th, 5:20PM: Disney has just announced the trailer will now be available for everyone online this Friday, free of charge.
This week, large swaths of Star Wars fans will pay upwards of $15 for a ticket to The Penguins of Madagascar and walk out before the movie even starts. The "world premiere" first trailer for Episode VII: The Force Awakens will debut this Friday in 30 theaters (28 in the US and two Canada) — potentially more, but the messaging is clear that this is an offline, ticketed event.
It's a weird misstep for Disney and Lucasfilm, which so far have been successful in courting the internet at large. This strategy is ostensibly designed with the fans in mind, but by trying to use age-old promotional tactics, it's alienating a rather dedicated following, and more importantly, it's a slap in the face to those who care the most.
Point is, all year Disney has courted and benefited from a rabid online Star Wars fan base — and then it artificially limits the first big reveal to an offline audience that largely won't care about being first.
In Disney's defense, the studio could not have picked a better weekend to pull this stunt. The day after Thanksgiving is a huge moviegoing day for people — and especially families — in the US. There's the last grasp of summer blockbuster (Interstellar, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1), "fun-for-the-whole-family" fare (The Penguins of Madagascar, Big Hero 6), Oscar hopefuls looking to meet that deadline for eligibility (The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Rosewater), and "other" (Dumb and Dumber To). Demographically-speaking, the Star Wars trailer will hit a pretty good sampling of its audience.
It's tailored for an audience that doesn't care if they see it first
But most of those who'll end up seeing the Star Wars teaser won't care if they see it first. They're not the ones who scour the internet for every morsel of information, generating as much hype as they are consuming it. That community is much larger than this sampling of largely metropolitan-focused cinemas. The strategy is designed to limit exposure and generate hype about the debut itself, rather than the content therein. If you want to see the 88-second trailer, be ready to pay full price for a ticket.
Has Disney learned nothing from last month's 'Age of Ultron' leak?
None of this takes into account the elephant in the room: that someone will inevitably manage to record the trailer with their smartphone and upload it on YouTube / DailyMotion / Vimeo / Google Drive, and that it'll spread faster than lawyers can catch it. Did Disney learn nothing from The Avengers: Age of Ultron? It was just over a month ago that subsidiary Marvel Studios had to release the trailer early after an internal leak gave us a rough-looking introduction to its big action sequences. (The lawyers, to be sure, haven't forgotten.)
Maybe that's part of the plan. Maybe, in addition to the play-by-play recaps fortunate fans will provide in forums, Disney expects rough leaks to surface. But is that how disney wants people to see this for the first time? On a shaky cam while "Chad' (or whoever) adds color commentary two rows up? Do they think it'll be "cooler" for people to feel like they're seeing something they shouldn't?
Star Wars fans are a special subset of cultural fanaticisms. There have been documentaries created about them. Disney and Lucasfilm know this, and they encourage it — see, for example, a scene-by-scene remake of Empire Strikes Back created through fan submissions. It's a group that would pay good money just to see seconds of never-before-seen footage before anyone else, even if what they're paying for is an advertisement.
Chances are the trailer will be available officially on Monday, streamed for the world to see, but by then, the fans who cared the most will have already seen it — in the worst fidelity imaginable.
We've got over a year until Episode VII actually hits theaters, so it's easy to say that this doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. It doesn't, really — there's little to no chance that this will affect critical reviews or ticket sales. But a trailer release strategy like this is designed to get the franchise's base of evangelists excited. Only it's failed to understand the internet — if anything, it's more likely to have the opposite effect, pissing off the internet-savvy base, except for the relative few in the core audience that'll get to see it the "right way" this weekend.
If you do get to see it, stick around for Penguins of Madagascar. I saw the trailer online, and it looks cute.