'Star Wars' May the 4th a marketing opportunity for the Disney empire

Watch the trailer for 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story'
Watch the trailer for 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story'

Perhaps appropriately for the "Star Wars" universe, the annual celebration known as May the 4th (as in "May the Force Be With You") began with a ragtag group of fans, before being coopted by a vast empire.

Capitalizing on the phrase uttered by Jedi knights in the movies, fans initiated May the 4th festivities several years ago. Not long after Disney's 2012 acquisition of Lucasfilm, the entity responsible for "Star Wars," it embraced the date, turning it into not only a kind of secular holiday for geeks but also a ripe marketing opportunity.

Disney and Lucasfilm have sought to maintain the event's grass-roots, celebratory feel, encouraging fans to host parties, dress up and indulge in movie marathons. Yet to the extent the day helps push all things "Star Wars," the company benefits by way of its vast array of merchandising tie-ins. The studio has also added a charitable component, using this year's Star Wars Day to raise more than $2 million for various causes under the heading "Force for Change."

Related: J.J. Abrams gives a big clue about Rey's parents

Disney XD, for example, the boy-oriented offshoot of the Disney Channel, will offer a marathon of Star Wars-related animated programs, including "Rebels" and "Droid Tales." The month of May has also been a time for "Star Wars Weekends" at the Disney parks, coinciding as it does with the traditional release dates of the original six movies. (Disclosure: My wife works for a division of Disney.)

Although it might be hard to remember, "Star Wars" wasn't always as ubiquitous as it is now. While the property existed in multiple forms, including games, books and toys, there were lengthy lapses in its presence in theaters, with 16 years between "Return of the Jedi" and the first prequel, "The Phantom Menace." Another decade passed from the end of that trilogy to "The Force Awakens," the seventh cinematic chapter.

Related: 'Star Wars' original trilogy returning to theaters for nationwide roadshow

Since its acquisition, Disney has jump-started every facet of the franchise, with "The Force Awakens" having shattered box-office records and a flurry spinoffs in the pipeline. The latter begin with "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," which is due in December.

The expression, incidentally, is actually traced back to 1979, when a newspaper ad commemorating the election of Margaret Thatcher as the U.K.'s prime minister seized on the date and read, "May the 4th Be With You, Maggie." Ever enterprising fans even came up with another pun for the next day -- more widely celebrated as Cinco de Mayo -- by dubbing it "Revenge of the Fifth."

Related: Han Solo's 'Star Wars' jacket is up for sale

So don't be surprised to see a few more Star Wars T-shirts than usual on May 4. For those who don't know off the top of their heads how many parsecs it took Han Solo to complete the Kessel Run, it's probably best to respond to the signature greeting with a simple, "Have a nice day."


CNNMoney Sponsors