The Networked Age: Why Marvel is winning and Star Wars is losing

Solo, the fourth instalment in the new Star Wars series, underperformed against all expectations as it opened this weekend, suggesting the franchise is already losing steam only a few movies into its new era. Meanwhile, Infinity War, the 19th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is on course to break the $2bn barrier and is comfortably the biggest MCU film of all time.

Infinity War is the successful culmination of Marvel’s fan-first strategy

Why are the fortunes of Disney’s two mega-franchises diverging? Because Star Wars has chased new audiences at the expense of keeping their base happy, while Marvel has cultivated a deep relationship with its core fans. And in the Networked Age, passion is a brand’s greatest asset.

Since Disney’s acquisition of Star Wars, producer Kathleen Kennedy has been using a playbook designed for a hierarchical world that no longer exists. Here’s why Marvel gets it right and Star Wars gets it wrong:

  1. Networks transmit emotions and amplify the most passionate voices

Antagonising your base is bad business in any era. Pareto’s Power Law says 80% of a company’s profits come from 20% of its most loyal customers. But the Power Law also applies to social networks — the top 20% of influencers typically generate 80% of the conversation. And social networks reward the most strident, partisan voices. This means mobilising core fans has become even more important. Kennedy, however, has been marginalising these fans in pursuit of new demographics, telling the New York Times in 2016 that:

“I have a responsibility to the company that I work with. I don’t feel that I have a responsibility to cater in some way. I would never just seize on saying, ‘Well, this is a franchise that’s appealed primarily to men for many, many years, and therefore I owe men something.”

Last Jedi director Rian Johnson took a similarly indifferent view towards the base. At a fan convention, Luke Skywalker actor Mark Hamill revealed he would argue over script choices with lofty auteur Johnson:

“At times, I’d say to Rian, ‘We gotta think of what the audience wants,’ And he’d say, ‘No, we’ve gotta think of what we want.’ Which is a learning process for me.”

Star Wars’ publicity strategy has been similarly top-down, bombarding talkshows with celebrity interviews, while largely ignoring the fanboy channels on YouTube — and releasing optimistic ticket sales projections, which were met with great skepticism by fan communities who made their own calculations.

The problem with Star Wars’ breadth and reach is that low-engagement audiences won’t serve as your Hype Men on social media, they won’t evangelise the film to friends, family and colleagues and they won’t queue to fill your theatres on opening night, to give the release a sense of unstoppable momentum. Excitement is transmitted between people more easily than it is bought with advertising.

Marvel understands this and its promotional strategies are pure fan service, littered with teasers that reward the hardcore geeks and tributes to the role that the fans have played in building the MCU.

2. We all respond more favourably to people like ourselves — to engage the fans you have to be a fan

Marvel impresario Kevin Feige is first and foremost a fan. The MCU is his life’s work. For Kennedy, this is just her latest job in her glittering career. When Feige talks about fans, he says “we”. Kennedy says “they”.

The fans can tell the difference.

While Marvel directors James Gunn and the Russo Brothers enjoy a playful relationship with fans on social media, sharing insights, speculating about characters and responding to debates and ideas, Star Wars director Rian Johnson was more likely to be found criticising fans’ arguments than enjoying their company.

Neither Marvel’s nor Star Wars’ marketing teams make a move without careful planning, but Marvel content feels spontaneous and warm, using leak-prone, excitable talent like Tom Holland and Mark Ruffalo to help fans feel part of the production process, while Star Wars promotional content feels as glossy, regimented and cold as a row of stormtroopers. Kennedy’s conduct has turned the most passionate fanbase in the history of pop culture against the franchise, provoking a ‘Boycott Solo’ movement among those who should be queuing on opening night.

Holdo is a cypher for the producers’ approach to fans, demanding that Poe Dameron blindly follows authority

3. You can tell new stories, but you have to take people on a journey rather than fight against them

Both Marvel and Star Wars producers want to serve new audiences, tell more diverse stories and branch out in new directions to avoid being caught in narrative straightjackets that would limit the shelf lives of their franchises.

The Star Wars producers’ approach has been confrontational, killing off traditional characters in inglorious fashion and using the scripts to chastise their own fans. In a metatextual moment during Last Jedi, Kylo Ren urges: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”

But their thoughts betrayed them. Fans are not hostile to change or diversity. They just want the things they cherish to be respected and for new things to be additive, rather than oppositional. Marvel has succeeded in making each new character feel like it is enriching the world that established heroes inhabit.

Feige promised simply to hire the best directors regardless of background and landed Taika Waititi and Ryan Coogler in quick succession. Kennedy made it her public mission to find a female director, arguing that gender diversity was good for its own sake, but is yet to hire anyone other than a white male to direct a movie.

Marvel successfully switched the races of Heimdall, Valkyrie and Nick Fury without losing fans, before making Black Panther its biggest-ever solo hit and will follow that by introducing its first female lead hero, Captain Marvel. Star Wars promised to be ‘subversive’ but has ultimately gone back to the well of old characters like Boba Fett and Obi Wan to try to recapture public imagination, having failed to move the Star Wars story forwards.

Marvel has won new fans by keeping the old ones happy and transferring this fervour to new demographics. Star Wars picked a fight with their fans and lost.

Social networks amplify the ancient human desire to belong and to experience shared moments. Marvel has worked out that, in the Networked Age, a small number of vocal, passionate fans can dominate the social conversation and infect others with their enthusiasm. A small band can take down an Empire. Star Wars needs to remember that lesson fast.

Deputy CEO of strategic communications consultancy ENGINE|MHP+Mischief.