Walking into a showing of The Force Awakens, my son and I were talking about why the highest grossing film of all time — Avatar — seems to have failed to inspired the type of passionate fan base that we see from other franchises, such as Star Wars and Harry Potter.
"No one wants to dress up like that colonel," my son said. And with that, he nailed what I think is one of the most important elements that transforms a movie or book or television series into franchise — the potential for cosplay.
Obviously, merchandise is also important for growing a property into a franchise. But buying a figurine or other souvenir doesn't connect you with a franchise the way that dressing up as one its characters does. You can buy a cabinet filled with scale models and figurines, but all that does is to make you the owner of a bunch of franchise paraphernalia. Even if you take those souvenirs out and play with them, that deepens your engagement, but you still remain somewhat apart — an outside agent, looking at or playing with stuff, but never really becoming a part of it.
In cosplay, you become part of the franchise. You put your identity aside and instead assume the role of someone (or something) within a story you love. When you invest emotionally in a franchise to the level when you engage in cosplay, you cross from that franchise being something you like to the point where the franchise is part of who you are.
That's a point where entertainment companies would love to see their fans get. After all, fans who show that kind of loyalty are ones who will spend aggressively on movie tickets, merchandise, costumes, theme park tickets, home decor, and everything else that businesses create to market to those fans.
Clearly, Star Wars has gotten to that level. Just look at the number of people who showed up to the opening weekend of The Force Awakens in Jedi robes and Han Solo jackets, or sporting Princess Leia "buns" in their hair. If movie theaters across the world hadn't banned masks and make-up, you almost certainly would have seen legions of Stormtroopers, Darth Vaders, Kylo Rens, Chewbaccas, and other exotic creatures from the Star Wars universe, too.
Cosplay helps reinforce the loyalty of fans of many other franchises, including Star Trek, the Marvel and DC Comics universes, and perhaps most notably, Harry Potter. You can't walk into Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter without seeing at least one family in house robes. Potter offers perhaps the most engaging opportunities for cosplay, as you can wear your allegiance to the Wizarding World in every imaginable degree — from subtle notes, such as adding a scarf that just happens to be in house colors, to full-on commitment, such as donning complete Death Eater gear.
Avatar scores well behind other franchises on the cosplay test. The human beings in the story wore unremarkable clothes, and it's tough for anyone other than the most extremely committed fan to pull off dressing as a nine-foot Na'vi. While Pandora is visually beautiful, the narrative of the movie makes clear that the planet is toxic to humans. That's not creating the type of inviting environment that inspires fans to want to imagine themselves visiting. (That said, I am looking forward to seeing how Disney's Imagineers overcome these obstacles, when the new Avatar land opens at Disney's Animal Kingdom in 2017.)
So what does this mean for Star Wars Land? Obviously, there's no problem from the fans' perspectives here. People love dressing up as Star Wars characters, and fans are welcoming the opportunity to add new characters such as Kylo Ren, Rey, and Finn to the repertoire, as well. (A huge shout-out, by the way, to whoever pulls off the first General Hux/Bill Weasley cross-franchise cosplay mashup.)
The problem — potentially — lies with Disney. The company's recent expansion of its long-standing ban on adults wearing costumes in its theme parks could undercut Star Wars Land's appeal for many visitors. Yes, the fans will come — costumes or not — but the ability to cosplay within Star Wars Land undoubtedly would expand its appeal to the most loyal Star Wars fans.
Of course, Disney fans are resourceful. Just look at the success of "Disneybounding" in recent years, as fans have found ways around the company's costume ban by assembling outfits that suggest, rather than replicate, the look of beloved Disney characters. Fans will push whatever limits Disney sets on the wearing of costumes in the park.
But while Disney fans likely will accept a "no cosplay" rule in Avatar Land without a thought — who really wants to dress up like those guys, anyway? — the stakes rise with the opening of Star Wars Land. No one wants a theme park to jeopardize its visitors' safety. But when the pursuit of safety starts to drain the fun from a park, managers need to get creative to find a better way to achieve both safety and fun.
So among the plans for Disney's Star Wars Land should be a respectful approach to cosplay in the parks — clearly defined rules that encourage fans to express their love for and loyalty to Star Wars while allowing Disney reassure everyone that it is providing a safe environment, as well. If Disney wants to build a land better than Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it will need to take full potential of the Star Wars franchise, and that includes finding a way to accommodate a comfortable level of cosplay for all who visit Star Wars Land.
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