Star Wars: Another Powerful Shift in the Force at Hand?

A long time ago, in a suburban movie theatre far away, I saw a little-known “science fiction” movie that changed my world forever. The movie that summer – Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope – captivated my imagination with seamless special effects, fascinating alien creatures, and heart-pounding dogfights in space, raising the bar for all of the films that followed.  Star Wars set a new standard for visual f/x, but more importantly, it changed our expectations of blockbuster movies.

The anticipation of Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been unlike any other, as die-hard fans have followed the epic struggle between the Jedi and the Sith for decades. I count myself among them, having proudly slept on Star Warsbedsheets, drank milk from promotional C-3P0/R2-D2 glasses and wore my Darth Vader t-shirt in wardrobe rotation. Few other franchises have inspired moviegoers to camp out in lines, for days in advance, not just to buy tickets but to be the first in the door to get a good seat – in full Stormtrooper uniforms or Jedi regalia, wielding blasters and light sabers, respectively. With such a deep-seated loyalty and enthusiasm for the film, Disney has the opportunity to shape the home video market and turn people to the other side: digital downloading.

Digital video content has been available to consumers for over five years, but their preference for discs remains strong. Even today, 3 out of 4 video buyers only buy discs; and of those who have upgraded to digital downloads, the vast majority still buy discs, too (source: NPD’s Entertainment Trends in America). Whether due to retailer promotions, impulse buying, or their purchase pattern inertia, home video shoppers need a catalyst for changing their behavior, and The Force Awakens is the right combination of genre, fan base, and box office stature to set digital migration in place.

The last paradigm shift in home entertainment was the evolution from VHS tapes to DVDs, at the dawn of the new millennium. Consumers immediately recognized the vast improvement in picture and sound quality, and adoption of DVD players enjoyed steady growth as viewers reveled in the technology. When the reality-shifting movie The Matrix was released on video in 1999, the stars were aligned for the sleek, effects-laden film to succeed. Neo and company found their tech-savvy, fanboy audiences waiting with bated breath, and their enthusiasm propelled the film to become the first to sell one million DVDs. This was a watershed industry achievement, defining the format and forever altering the rental/purchase landscape.

Fast-forward 15 years, and we’re on the brink of another format evolution to digital downloading. Over half of U.S. homes now own a TV connected to the Internet, many of whom have two or more points of connectivity (source: NPD’s Connected Home report). Streaming video subscriptions have become a way of life for over one-third of households, opening the pipelines and paving the way for digital transactions. Just as The Matrix fans were ripe as potential DVD buyers, The Force Awakens fans are both devoted and determined enough to navigate today’s digital sales portals. Sci-fi fans are not only avid digital buyers, but they eagerly anticipate these purchases, with nearly 3 out of 4 planning to download in advance (source: NPD’s VideoWatch); laying early groundwork now could trigger The Force Awakens to be the first hugely successful digital title, setting the stage for others to follow.

Star Wars has ignited the box office. With this kind of momentum, the video consumer is sure to follow on digital formats, if we lead them there. To paraphrase the Episode VII trailer, “Movie downloads are waiting for you; all you have to do is let them in.”