As of today, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” has made over $900 million in the US, and more than $2 billion in worldwide ticket sales, making it the #1 domestic and #3 global release of all time.
Most of the credit rightfully goes to director J.J. Abrams, producer and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and the charismatic cast – both newcomers like Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, and returning stars like Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher.
But some of that success is thanks to people not listed in the closing credits. Like Jackson George.
George, New College ‘95, is senior vice president of creative advertising for Disney.
He’s responsible for creative materials – trailers, TV spots and promotional materials – that promote major movies coming out. And that includes “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the biggest movie of the decade.
It was the most hotly anticipated movie of the year – even many years – and with the near-unanimous reviews, its success now seems pre-ordained. But that success is greater than he and his teammates could have hoped.
“Even now, it’s still kind of mind-boggling,” he said. “It’s just really exciting that it worked, that the campaign was successful, and we didn’t give anything away.”
George is referring to the high-wire act that is his job: Making people want to see a movie, without giving away what makes the movie special.
His primary vehicle is the often-maligned trailer, long seen in theaters and now increasingly on the internet. George essentially is the trailer’s director, choosing what scenes go in – and more importantly, what scenes don’t go in. Though they come in at less than two minutes each, George and his team spent more than a year and half to produce them.
It started with conversations with Abrams and Kennedy before even a frame of the movie was shot. And it continues in close consultation with the studio and with the filmmakers – George made a half-dozen overnight trips from Los Angeles to London to present his work.
He and his team start with the “dailies,” the footage as it’s shot, and begin to choose the scenes that convey the right tone and message, working with a team of film, sound and music editors, composers, and designers to create versions.
“We just tried to be incredibly sparse,” he said. “We kept condensing everything back to the most basic fundamental ideas that we thought people would be intrigued by.”
What electrified most fans was the moment near the end of the second trailer: with a black screen, Ford’s unmistakable voice says, “Chewie, we’re home,” and the beloved Han Solo and Chewbacca characters appear.
Was that too much of a giveaway?
“We debated it for months and months and months,” George said. “There were many, many versions that never had that in it. But at the end of the day, it’s undeniable. It’s obviously a huge moment in the film, but it signals, without giving anything away, that everything you love and want to see is back.”
“We wanted people to feel a connection,’” he said. “That line, and that feeling, of ‘Oh my gosh, I remember that,’ recalling that emotion is such a simple and profound thing. The most important thing is that people knew we were respecting their memories.”
His work draws on the foundation he built at New College, where he studied religion, philosophy and history, and wrote a thesis that examined the philosophical themes that made Ronald Reagan’s oratory effective.
George believes a New College education is better preparation for his career than one might think. “New College encourages different thinking and a little more free association, a little more following your curiosities and exploring them,” he said.
“At New College, you have to think creatively. You don’t have to think creatively, but you want to. And I think New College gives you the tools to do that.”
In his job, he says, he interviews people all the time, many of whom have fastidiously prepared for a career in marketing, communications, or advertising. He’s looking for something more: “Big, interesting thinking is more interesting than knowing what you want to do when you’re 17.
“There are enough specialists in the world,” he said. “A lot of the people I really respect who do this, it wasn’t necessarily their plan A. It’s good to be flexible. It makes you more able to zag when everybody else is zigging.”
While at New College, George worked in the alumni office, and did well enough with cold-calling that the office asked him to contact some west coast alumni/ae.
On one contact page, it simply said “Smitty” – Robert Smith, founder of film marketing agency In Sync, as George learned when he called. They spoke for an hour, George recalls, and at the end, he asked if he could stop by, get some advice, a direction, learn a little about the business.
“So when I came out, I looked him up – I truly went in just to talk to him – and he we ended up working closely together for nine years,” George said. They worked on “Walk the Line,” “Inside Man,” “Cast Away,” “Rocky Balboa,” “Night at the Museum,” “Scary Movie,” and the “Resident Evil” franchise.
“He’s been my mentor and great friend ever since,” George said.
Smitty, now CEO of InSync + BemisBalkind, a leading entertainment and lifestyle marketing agency, had high praise for his protégé.
“Jackson is that rare talent who can see things clearly before it comes into sight for anyone else. In our profession, that is an attribute that will put and keep you at the head of the pack,” he said.
‘In a strange way, he is slave only to the film he is working on. It’s that purity that dictates his actions and helps create a strength that is hard to find in Hollywood.”
Those attributes led him to be hired as head of creative advertising at Overture Films, and then at Universal Pictures, where he oversaw the advertising campaigns for films such as “Despicable Me,” “Bridesmaids,” “Ted,” and “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.”
Those successes caught the eye of Disney, which hired him in 2012 – a few months before the Lucasfilm acquisition and the three-year march to “The Force Awakens.”
It culminated in the world premiere, Dec. 14 in Hollywood.
Sitting in the crowd was George, between his wife, Jasmine, and his son Truman, 7 (Daughter Keira, 6, had to stay at home). He’d had to keep them completely in the dark about the movie for 18 months. And though George had pored over every scene of the movie, he’d yet to see the final cut.
“I think I experienced it like everyone else did. It felt liberating, it felt exciting,” he said. “In my job, one of the most important things you have to do is be a little bit ignorant. You can’t fall in love with anything because you have to be willing to kill it and start over at any point. So I think with this one, it was amazing to see it and go, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been saying to myself that this was great, but it really is great.’ That was just a wonderful feeling.”
As the movie played, he said, he sensed how his family, and the audience, were responding. In the second half, Truman climbed into his lap. “Just to feel the way his body reacted to the movie was a way for me to experience the movie all over again, in an amazing kind of way.”
With the movie firmly established as a triumph, you’d think George could finally relax. Nope. He’s already working on the next movie. And nope, don’t ask him to elucidate any of the tantalizing mysteries that “The Force Awakens” introduced.