Keeping the Secrets of ‘Star Wars’

While some fans have speculated that trailers and TV spots have already shown too much of the film, in truth, all of the footage combined amounts to just about five minutes of a movie that runs more than two hours. Screen capture by HowStuffWorks staff

“Blue Harvest.”

It's a name many “Star Wars” fans are familiar with. “Star Wars” had become such a phenomenon by 1981 that in order to shoot the third installment of the saga, “Return of the Jedi,” without the interference of fans, a fake horror film called “Blue Harvest” was created as a ruse to preserve the film's secrecy. “Horror beyond imagination” was the tag line. There was even a logo and cast jackets and hats.

The cast and crew of “The Force Awakens” similarly needed to keep their whereabouts unknown, embracing even more secrecy than the previous films. The production company making the film wasn't “Lucasfilm” or “Bad Robot,” but a dummy company called “Foodles.”

“Foodles” happened to be the name of a restaurant in the Kerner Building in San Rafael, California. Kerner Optical was a couple of doors down. That was also a dummy name — for Industrial Light & Magic. George Lucas once told The New York Times that the name Kerner was a "deception designed to keep kids from rummaging through garbage bins.” And it worked. For a while.

From left to right: screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, actors Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong'o, Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley, and director/producer J.J. Abrams at the Dec. 6, 2015, press panel
Screen capture by HowStuffWorks staff

Although not as catchy as “Blue Harvest,” the code name for “The Force Awakens” was the inauspicious “Avco.” That title might seem nonsensical unless you read the 2013 article that included a quote from director J.J. Abrams about an early “Star Wars” memory: “My second memory is actually seeing [Star Wars] in the theater on opening day in Westwood at Avco Theater and never being the same again.”

There was a meaning to everything, and a point to all the secrecy.

“Right from the beginning we've respected the fans. The fans have really been the ones focused on making sure that everybody and anybody who walks into this movie gets to be surprised.
Kathleen Kennedy, Lucasfilm President

On Dec. 6, 2015, Lucasfilm held a press junket in Los Angeles, California, for “The Force Awakens.” The cast was there; the filmmakers were there; the press was there. But the one thing missing was the film itself. During the press conference portion of the event, one exasperated reporter asked Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, “Why the unprecedented level of secrecy around this film? I've never covered a film junket where the media couldn't see the film in advance, the cast seems terrified of letting anything slip, and some haven't even seen the film. So, why did you go to these extremes?”

Kennedy smiled knowingly and explained, “Right from the beginning we've respected the fans. The fans have really been the ones focused on making sure that everybody and anybody who walks into this movie gets to be surprised. We have so few things that surprise us anymore and when you walk in to see a movie it's all told in the trailers, it ends up online way in advance. That's really all that's driving it and we've respected that in all ways we can.”

When asked about his track record on secrecy, Abrams was surprised by how much Disney agreed with him, even after the backlash he received for the obfuscation he did on “Star Trek Into Darkness.”

Actor John Boyega and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy share a laugh during a press panel for "The Force Awakens."
Screen capture by HowStuffWorks staff

“While we were working on the movie,” Abrams said, “I realized how engaged with the fans and forthcoming Lucasfilm had always been and, my nature, which is to keep things quiet, was something that I was certain we were going to have fights about and I wanted to keep the audience surprised when they went to go see the movie. But Disney, in my shock, was arguing to not ruin, not reveal, not show every story beat.

"We've all seen trailers for films that literally show you the movie in CliffsNotes form and then you go to see the film and you're like, ‘Yeah, that was literally the movie and I saw it in a 2:10 piece.' So I was very grateful that Disney actually took the lead on trying to keep things quieter. When you do see the movie, and hopefully talk about it to your readers, I hope you maintain some level of surprise, so that people get to see the movie and don't have it ruined for them just because it's finally been released.”

With only days left before the film comes out, Disney and Lucasfilm are in the home stretch, and the lengths they've gone to keep the film under wraps seem to be paying off. Little is still known about roles played by actors such as Max Von Sydow, whose participation was announced early in production. Luke Skywalker's face hasn't even been glimpsed yet, though it's widely known Mark Hamill is in the film. The final trailer to the film, released in October, revealed almost nothing — and racked up a record-breaking 112 million views in the first 24 hours of its release.

On the other hand, audiences have responded well to the sort of advertising Kennedy and Abrams criticized, too. The recent “Captain America: Civil War” trailer felt as though it included every major beat from the film, but audiences are still clamoring for more, watching that trailer 61 million times in its first 24 hours of release.

Will this extreme secrecy work for Lucasfilm? We don't have much longer to find out, and if it does, expect more of it from the studio.

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