The Weird Hubbub About “Super 8” and Weak Tracking Numbers

Earlier this week, the corners of the Web that discuss such things were aflutter about the weaker-than-expected tracking numbers for “Super 8.”  Various sites and individuals debated whether or not the secretive marketing campaign was dooming the movie’s opening weekend. This perplexes me.

On Monday night, Vulture’s reliable Claude Brodesser-Akner reported about the movie’s “surprising” tracking numbers. Significantly fewer people were aware of the movie than were aware of “X-Men: First Class” and “Green Lantern,” the movies that bookend “Super 8” on the release schedule. Everyone picked this up and ran with it, despite the tracking numbers actually being perfectly acceptable for a movie with (a) no stars, (b) no brand name, (c) a well-known but not super-famous director, (d)  Spielberg’s name above the title and (e) a mysterious marketing campaign that didn’t show much or deliver an immediate hook. Shortly after Vulture’s story went up, Deadline’s Mike Fleming chimed in with a similar report (in what appears to be his trademark “spew out a lot of information without applying any analytical thought whatsoever” style).

Paramount might not have planted these stories, but the studio has to be downright giddy about them. Before this week, “Super 8” was a buzzy, mysterious project from J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. The biggest problems for this movie’s performance were the lack of stars, source material and an easy-to-market premise. It wasn’t going to flop (the budget alone ensures that), but there was a significant risk for Abrams and Paramount in the film being tagged as a loser for its opening box office. Witness “X-Men: First Class,” which opened with $54 million — a fine amount for a period franchise reboot, also without stars — but was dubbed an under-performer because the four previous films in the series had earned much more. “Super 8” was always going to need word of mouth to survive. Now Paramount has successfully lowered expectations for this film’s debut. Anything above $30 million (which it will get) will be viewed as a big success.

(These numbers are only soft if you compare this to “Inception,” last summer’s mysterious original story from a filmmaker who merges the mainstream with the nerdy. That comparison doesn’t hold up, because that film starred Leonardo DiCaprio, as well as Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and others, and the trailers showed a city folding in on itself. The smarter bet is to compare this to “District 9,” which came out in 2009 and had a big name producer (Peter Jackson) and opened to $37 million. More on this in a second)

More importantly, Paramount has taken a major summer release — opening without any serious competition and coming from J.J. Abrams and Steven Freaking Spielberg — and turned it into an underdog. Now the people who run movie sites, and the people who write about movies, feel compelled to extol the movie’s virtues (assuming most of them like it, which is an easy assumption, because a lot of the people who run movie Web sites fall into the target demographic of “people who liked Steven Spielberg’s movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s and are susceptible to nostalgia-based filmmaking”). They will want to protect and promote this thing as this summer’s exemplar of originality and original thought. (That the movie is not terribly original is besides the point, as is the fact that plenty of original movies are hitting theaters, they just don’t have big budgets or big directors.)

The entire discussion about whether or not the movie’s tracking numbers are low wound up just being a way for people to have the discussion about whether or not the secrecy was helping or hurting. J.J. Abrams is famously secretive — it is, in fact, his entire shtick, but I will say more about that in a separate post — and he wanted this one to be kept hush-hush for as long as possible. No glimpse of the monsters, limited looks at the story. This is what he does, and it doesn’t even matter if the movie itself looks rather predictable, because he was keeping the money shot (whatever is inside that train) from the public.

Paramount told Deadline’s Fleming that they are more focused on a lengthy box office run than a big opening. “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,” Fleming wrote on Monday. Cut to Thursday afternoon, when the studio released a video showing a glimpse of the creature. (There really aren’t any big plot points that need hiding, so the mystery really is more of a marketing tactic than anything else.) On Wednesday, the studio screened the film in a dozen cities; if their goal was absolute secrecy, that was a big failure, but if their goal was to show the movie to sympathetic audiences that would praise it online, it was a huge success. On Thursday, the studio screened the film in more than 300 locations around the country in an effort to get people to promote it on Twitter. It’s beginning to look like Paramount was willing to adhere to absolute secrecy to a point, but with the opening weekend looming (and knowing that an opening of $20-25 million would have been trumpeted as a poor performance before all of this chatter), the marketers went to work and did their thing.

In any event, the movie is now poised to outperform the “soft tracking numbers.” Paramount’s big push over the last few days certainly has helped. I think this one will open in the same neighborhood as “District 9” (about $36-39 million) but have legs between that film and “Inception.” While “District 9” tripled its debut in domestic box office,  “Inception” earned five times its opening; I see “Super 8” earning about four times its opening weekend (giving it about $150 million, give or take). It’s going to be very profitable for Paramount, which claims to have spent $50 million producing the thing (and we will assume tens of millions more in marketing). But in an era where every summer movie has to ride a wave of attention to a huge opening and promptly disappear from the cultural discussion (heard anybody mention “Pirates of the Caribbean” lately? “Thor”? No?), Paramount has helped their film claim the mantle of “smart, off-the-beaten path crowd pleaser with long legs.” It was already going to get that assignation; I’m just amazed at how smartly they maneuvered it into that slot to keep it in the news this week.

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