What the Box-Office Skeptics Are Missing About Super 8

The last 24 hours has yielded a cluster of stories about the worrisome build-up to Super 8, this weekend's '80s-tinged sci-fi vehicle from writer-director J.J. Abrams (and co-produced by Abrams's chief influence Steven Spielberg). Deadline notes Paramount's "bold gamble" in not spoiling Super 8's storyline, visual effects or its central creature alluded to in earlier marketing efforts, thus leaving pre-release buzz -- and thus box-office expectations ($25 million to $30 million, according to the studio) -- on the low side. The Hollywood Reporter cited "industry chatter that the film would not open on par with recent summer releases like X-Men: First Class or Thor"; Vulture quotes a witness to "'purgatory' tracking. It's horrific." Except it's not horrific. Abrams and Paramount have us right where they want us.

As much as we've heard about Super 8's homage to films like The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and especially E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (whose June 11, 1982, release date precedes Super 8 almost precisely 29 years to the day), Abrams has indeed insisted on a level of secrecy not often seen in contemporary marketing campaigns. We know a few things: There is a group of adolescent friends making a movie. There is a train crash. There is a monster. A town is in peril. But that's pretty much all we know. This alarms observers who think the moviegoing public hasn't seen or heard enough about the film and its elements -- and that neither Abrams nor Spielberg are enough of a draw on their own -- to land that blockbuster opening on which so many studios count this time of year. Paramount's official line is that budgeted around $50 million (not including untold tens of millions in marketing expenses), Super 8 doesn't need a blockbuster opening to show commercial promise. It's the un-tentpole, in other words -- the direct opposite of Spielberg and Paramount's other summer delivery, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and more in line with long-legged sleeper hits like Paramount's earlier True Grit, which debuted wide last December to $24.8 million before finally bringing home $171 million domestically.

That's fair, but it's also defensive and a little misleading. Ultimately, the strategy behind Super 8 orbits around trusting audiences to talk about a movie after it opens as opposed to before. Imagine! A film culture that subsists on whole films as opposed to micromanaged fragments of hype! That is a "bold gamble" in a day and age when the Web economy relies on B.S. trailer "leaks" and endless clips, stills, posters and other spoilers whose revelations often do more to undermine than bolster audience anticipation. (I'm looking at you, Green Lantern.) Chatter means nothing without context; it doesn't even necessarily mean a huge opening. To wit, is there anything left to see, hear or discuss about X-Men: First Class after yesterday morning? Was the overexposure of everyone from January Jones to Jennifer Lawrence worth the relatively modest opening-weekend return and the imminent 50-plus-percent week-two drop?

In fairness to Hollywood, of course blockbuster budgets do require any means necessary for blockbuster openings. Even if Paramount is radically understating the production cost (and having seen the film, I think they are), Super 8 is still not that movie. As good as the young cast is, the biggest name in the cast is Kyle Chandler -- the head coach on that football series that everybody loves but nobody watches. Ultimately, the movie is the star, which brings everything back to its fundamental spiritual and thematic influence: E.T.

Watch this original trailer for Spielberg's biggest hit and tell me what the Super 8 skeptics might say is missing:

Hint: There's no extra-terrestrial. There's a spaceship here, a few alien digits there, and the implication that it can be domesticated enough to be "kept," but that's all. Super 8's marketing to date has provided virtually the same clues about its mystery creature: A train crash here, some muscular steel-bending there, and the implication that it is dangerous to humans. History has proven the merits of discretion in this genre; the Abrams-produced Cloverfield benefited from the same approach, busting out to $40 million in January 2008.

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  • trafalgar says:

    That original trailer didn't show E.T., but it spelled out the WHOLE PLOT. Seriously, the only thing that doesn't get teased is the flying bicycle.
    That said, I think you're right about "Super 8." They're relying on word of mouth and the film having legs, which says more about their belief in its quality than all the desperate flailing for "Thor," "X-Men" and especially "Green Lantern."

  • Tommy Marx says:

    One question. Has no one in Hollywood ever heard the anger voiced by pretty much every single person in America at trailers that reveal the entire movie? I love the idea of trailers giving us enough to intrigue without revealing most of the major plot points.
    And I'm tired of this expectation that a movie has to make $100 million on opening weekend or it's a disappointment. Adjusted for inflation, The Goonies opened at $20.2 million, Close Encounters at $19.0, and E.T. at $31.6. One of my pet peeves is if a movie doesn't open big, it's a failure. Good movies will survive.
    Again, another great article. I like the idea of Super 8 being, gasp, an un-tentpole. Granted, Goonies, Close Encounters and E.T. all had multiple sequels that racked up billions - oh wait, no they didn't. Sometimes it's nice to see a movie that's a movie, not an advertisement for a blockbuster sequel.

  • Flash says:

    I saw 'E.T.' with my children. Now that they've grown up and gone away, the trailer's telling me that there's no reason for this Adult to go see 'Super 8'.
    So I'll go see 'Green Lantern' which does appeal to me as both a fan boy and an adult.

  • Tommy Marx says:

    That trailer surprised me too. It pretty much outlined the entire movie. My parents took me to see it when it originally played in theaters, and I hadn't seen the trailer. That was one of the best movies I've ever seen. Looking back, I'm glad I never saw the trailer. Applause for not revealing E.T., but seriously, that trailer was cheesy and revealed WAY too much.

  • "Granted, Goonies, Close Encounters and E.T. all had multiple sequels that racked up billions - oh wait, no they didn't. Sometimes it's nice to see a movie that's a movie, not an advertisement for a blockbuster sequel."
    Aaaaaamen. Thanks, Tommy!

  • Brandon says:

    Tell me if I'm wrong, but I think the reason so much is spoiled in trailers is because studio execs are a really nervous bunch who are never really sure what is going to hit or why. So they do what they can: Overexpose a film and hope to make their money back.

  • casting couch says:

    Right on, brother. Movie headlines now are all about the opening weekend haul. I guess no one cares anymore if the movie is good or not.

  • Capote99 says:

    Are there really hundreds of more movies made today than there were 30 years ago? I am only asking the question because it doesn't seem that way.

  • Lowell says:

    According to the-numbers.com:
    1982: 146 films released
    2010: 892 films released

  • I don't know about "made"; I wrote "released." While I'd assume it's accurate for both, I know it's accurate for the latter: According to at least one database -- which doesn't include indie and foreign releases from the time, granted, so let's add 50 percent just for the hell of it -- studio releases in 1982 totaled 146. More comprehensive (i.e. indie/foreign) data from 2010 lists a total of 892 releases.
    A lot of this is just attributable to the surge in media: more multiplexes = more screens to fill; more cable bandwidth = more channels to program; more festivals (and lower barrier to entry) = more indie/low-budget proliferation... etc etc.

  • ILDC says:

    Burning money is always fun to watch.