Sign up for the THINK newsletter

You have been successfully added to our newsletter.

Get fresh opinions, sharp analyses and powerful essays delivered to your inbox.

Ani Bundel Happy Star Wars Day, a fake holiday Disney turned into a marketing blitz fans actually love

May the Fourth celebrations are a way for Disney to pay homage to some of the world's most passionate fans — and also sell them a lot of stuff.
Image: A young Star Wars fan walks past others in costume on "May the Fourth be with you" day
A young Star Wars fan walks past others in costume on during May Fourth celebrations in Portmagee, Ireland.Charles McQuillan / Getty Images
Get the Think newsletter.

This Memorial Day, Lucasfilm will premiere its first film over the holiday weekend since 2005. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is a test run for the production company, which may eventually move all of its film premieres to the start of summer come 2020. This change has several benefits, one of which is the ability to capitalize on a completely made-up holiday that Disney has built into a brilliant marketing ploy: May 4 aka "May the Fourth Be With You" aka “Star Wars Day.”

This year, Star Wars Day includes a variety of events, merchandizing deals and, perhaps most importantly for fans, tickets going on sale for “Solo.” Disney has also released one of the most-hyped scenes from “Solo” on YouTube in 360 degrees, so fans can watch it from all angles. Disney’s May the Fourth hoopla proves how expertly the behemoth brand has been able to appeal to both hardcore and new Star Wars fans ever since it took over Lucasfilm in 2012.

Disney’s May the Fourth hoopla proves how expertly the behemoth brand has been able to appeal to both hardcore and new Star Wars fans ever since it took over Lucasfilm in 2012.

“May the Fourth Be With You” was not created by Lucasfilm, however. It first surfaced when the UK Tory party took out a punny half page ad in the London Evening News celebrating Margaret Thatcher’s prime minister win on May 4, 1979. If nothing else, the ad proved Star Wars lingo had already become practically universal only two years after the original film’s release.

But it wasn’t until the disastrous Star Wars prequels that the phrase started to become anything more than a nerdy joke. During the latter half of the aughts, the Star Wars franchise seemed left for dead by the film industry, surviving only in cartoon form. But while the films were languishing, the internet was connecting Star Wars fanatics in new and exciting ways. Celebrating on May the Fourth became a way to keep the cultural flame alive, even as the dream of more live action films faded. The holiday emerged as fully-fledged Official Nerd Day in 2011, with the first large, fan-held festivities. By 2012, fan celebrations had spread like wildfire.

Image: Fans gather for a Star Wars lightsaber battle in Los Angeles
Fans gather for a Star Wars lightsaber battle in Los Angeles on Dec. 18, 2015.Jason Kempin / Getty Images file

When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in October of that year, it didn’t just buy the rights to a set of beloved characters. As executives quickly found out, the purchase also included the forced adoption of a full- fledged and worldwide fandom that remained deeply committed to Star Wars — and deeply suspicious of the Mouse House’s ability to revive their beloved franchise.

How to win the zealots over? Embrace their culture. On May 4, 2013, Disney’s first full year in charge, it turned the day into an earnest holiday. Disney held Star Wars-themed celebrations in its park over the weekend, and pushed ABC and “Good Morning America” (another branch of the Disney brand) to cover fan observances. Disney even took the faithful “Star Wars Celebration,” which had been held in Orlando for the last six years, and moved it from August to the spring in order to help push new films.

The decision to release “Solo” in May when the late December slot has done so well recently is part of a grander plan to move all the films back to this date. The first six Star Wars films all came out on Memorial Day weekend, and Lucasfilm wants to return to that tradition. But more powerful than the lure of nostalgia is the lure of cash. December releases mean the studio has to market its yet-unseen movie and its new merchandise simultaneously, without spoiling any character or plot developments. “Solo: A Star Wars Story” will have the honor of being the first film since the franchise rebooted to come out before holiday shopping kicks off in earnest in September. May the Christmas sales be with you.

Indeed, it is a truth universally acknowledged that Lucasfilm’s real profits don’t come from the Star Wars films. They come from the Star Wars-themed clothing, home decor, lunchboxes, Lego sets and all those collectables, including the ubiquitous Funko Pops. There is a reason you can buy essentially anything you would ever want with a Star Wars logo on it. Lucas’ merchandising mania is so well known that “Spaceballs” even spoofed it.

In a 2015 interview with creator George Lucas’ former attorney Tom Pollock, the lawyer noted that securing the merchandising rights from 20th Century FOX after the first “Star Wars” film was a deal breaker for Lucas. If FOX hadn’t given up the rights, Pollock said, Lucas’ first sequel “The Empire Strikes Back” would have gone someplace else.

Nowadays, the Star Wars Day preparations on StarWars.com are very much tied to shopping deals, with Star Wars Day posts coming to act as a sort of demented Galactic Black Friday.

But it’s not just a commercial holiday. The fan-held celebrations are still important (and still advertised on ABC News). This year in California, Disneyland held a midnight “Ring in the Fourth” celebration as part of their new “Disneyland After Dark” initiative. The event sold out so fast a second one was added for May 9. (That one is now sold out too.) Disney World in Florida is holding an evening celebration on the night of May 4 called “Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular.” (Yes, it’s also sold out.)

This year in California, Disneyland held a midnight “Ring in the Fourth” celebration. The event sold out so fast a second one was added for May 9. (That one is now sold out too.)

In theory, one could hop on a plane from California and go directly from one event to the other. And word has it Disney will also make today the day that tickets to “Solo: A Star Wars Story” finally go on sale.

In the end, Star Wars Day merges the best of both worlds for Disney. It’s a fan-created holiday that is both a merchandising bonanza and a way for the franchise’s corporate steward to reconnect and celebrate with one of the most passionate fan communities in the world. (This is especially important ahead of a huge May marketing push for of the “Solo” premiere.) To paraphrase the similarly popular franchise “Dr. Who”: “Just this once Rose, everybody wins.”

Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.

Read more: 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' is the divisive Star Wars reboot fans need right now

Get the Think newsletter.
Get the Think newsletter.
MORE FROM think