Mike Fleming

When JJ Abrams conceived Super 8, his intention was to replicate those Steven Spielberg films of the 70s and 80s, where he discovered the magic in a movie theater and not by watching every reveal in a commercial. When Spielberg directed or produced films like Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist and Gremlins, finally seeing the creature was half the fun, and they were always kept secret until opening day.

Abrams and Paramount’s decision to embrace that retro marketing strategy on Super 8 has the movie marketing crowd buzzing. Even though an initial strong statement was made with a Super Bowl ad that showed a train crash and some creature pulverizing a steel train door, Paramount and Abrams have focused on character and given up little in the creature department in commercials that followed. Days from its Friday opening, rivals say that tracking numbers are soft and would be considerably stronger among young moviegoers had Abrams and the studio given up a glimpse of the creature and playing up that plot line. Rivals say that there is nervousness at Paramount because the studio has gone so far in embracing Abrams’ now famous desire for utmost secrecy. This is a bold gamble Paramount is taking, at a time when the mission of  studio marketers is to deliver the highest possible opening weekend, no matter how many plot highlights and spoilers are sacrificed in TV spots.  Several marketing experts I checked were buzzing with the assertion that Par’s decision to protect the purity of the movie-going experience could put the film in an opening weekend hole it will be hard pressed to recover from. They say the conservative campaign has left Super 8 lagging in key tracking categories behind Green Lantern and Cars 2, films that open in subsequent weeks.

Abrams and Spielberg took the stage during the Viacom-owned MTV Movie Awards to introduce a clip Sunday night, and while they introduced a new spot that conveys more menace than earlier trailers, they did not give away a glimpse of the creature. And the trailer people were talking about today was the new Twilight Saga spot. Here is that presentation:

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Philosophically, Abrams is right. How frustrating is it to show up to a comedy or drama and discover that the best lines or visuals were spoiled by being repeated ad nauseum in trailers? Still, is it worth protecting those secrets at the price of leaving potential audiences indifferent and looking at other summer fare that puts all the bells and whistles in TV spots?

Insiders at Paramount tell me a different story. They say they’ve got a $50 million budget (word on the street is it cost a lot more) quality film that is being marketed “more for playability than a giant opening weekend.” According to this insider, if Super 8 opens at $25 million or better, it could be one of the more profitable films of the summer. If they hit their modest target with the help of word of mouth from audiences appreciative of seeing a crowd-pleasing movie with real surprises, then Paramount has a shot at replicating Universal’s recent run with Bridesmaids. Like Super 8, that was a modest budget film with little star power and subpar tracking that outperformed its tracking by grossing a surprising $26 million opening weekend. It’s on course to gross $150 million. While Paramount has different ambitions for its other summer fare like Thor and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, studio brass will be high-fiving each other if Super 8 performs at that level. The studio is encouraged by tracking that indicates Super 8 has caught the attention of audiences in their 30s and 40s who grew up with those Spielberg movies, and females who have responded to the emotional storyline that has been played up early in the campaign.

Despite the widespread speculation, Paramount insiders said the marketing strategy on Super 8 isn’t the result of arm-twisting by Abrams, whom the studio hopes will direct the next Star Trek. An agreement was reached on the campaign back when Abrams first set up the movie. Even though Paramount had revealed more of the creature than Abrams wanted on the Bad Robot-produced Cloverfield and that helped turn the film into a hit, Abrams wanted to do Super 8 his way and made a modest deal for the privilege. Paramount went along. I’m told there will be no desperation reveal of the creature or major plot points before Friday’s opening to spike the tracking numbers. We’ll know soon whether Abrams’ retro marketing strategy pays off, but right now there are plenty of skeptics.

“It was a different world when Spielberg held everything secret, and Abrams isn’t Spielberg, at least not yet,” said one marketing expert. “Young moviegoers now have shorter attention spans, they want to know what they’re getting right away, or they will find any one of 40 other things they can do with their time and money. If Super 8 doesn’t open strong, next week will be even tougher because awareness on Green Lantern is tracking through the roof and both films need the young male audience to succeed.”

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