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Super 8 Opening Projections Are Irrelevant; Word-of-Mouth Will Sell This Critics’ Darling

Super 8 Opening Projections Are Irrelevant; Word-of-Mouth Will Sell This Critics' Darling

Having seen Super 8 Tuesday–it did not disappoint–I agree with box office analyst Anthony D’Alessandro’s assertion that it doesn’t matter if Super 8 opens soft. It’s an original that plays like gangbusters and as such, the eventual returns will dwarf its opening this weekend, whatever it is. (This terrific unofficial fan poster evokes the spirit of one-sheet artist Drew Struzan of Lucas/Spielberg fame, who denies any authorship.)

Super 8 has been driving Paramount and online movie sites super crazy. After word broke Monday evening  that advance tracking was soft on the J.J. Abrams-Steven Spielberg nostalgia-fest, the studio went into PR overdrive, clarifying projections. And in a final riposte to all box office naysayers, decided to offer Thursday sneak previews via Twitter in an effort to swell sales.

Super 8 is expected to bow at between $25-30 million. This is an original, not a sequel, and for a reported $50-million summer movie with no stars, that’s just fine. And for all those who believe that the film cost closer to $95 million, Paramount should be able to skate by with that bow. Why? As their Twitter sneaks attest, the studio is confident that the movie will play once moviegoers start spreading good word-of-mouth, especially in summer when midweek business is strong.  

Reviews are already stellar: Super 8’s current Tomatometer is 81% fresh. Paramount should just calm down and take a breather: Super 8 is going to do fine down the road. Original films always have a non-record start at the box office, from The Matrix ($27.8 million) to last summer’s Inception ($62.8 million). If Super 8 was posting middling to lackluster reviews, than the studio suits would really have to overdose on Alka Seltzer.
“People really love this movie. The film will start soft, but word of mouth will be built,” says one competitive distribution exec. “The problem is, in our world, if you don’t open at a blockbuster level, you’re left with a headline that gets a negative spin.”
Below are a few reasons why there’s nothing wrong with either Super 8’s marketing or its box office outlook:
Steven Spielberg is a blockbuster director in his final cumes. Although Super 8 is an Abrams film, its DNA is all Spielberg. Remove from Spielberg’s filmography his sequels and his pre-megaplex era pics of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and you find that most of his tentpoles since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan have opened in the high-$20 to mid-30 million range.  Even his summer sci-fi stuff,A.I. ($29.4 million opening, $78.6 million) and Minority Report ($35.7 million, $132 million) didn’t send shock waves through the charts in their first weekend, but wound up performing fine both domestically and globally. He has maintained a mature, character-driven sensibility throughout his work, one that is more than welcome in Super 8, as most contemporary filmmakers have abandoned it.  Instead, they’ve embraced the relentless boom-and-crash hijinks of such franchises as Fast Five, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Transformers.  On average, a Spielberg-type film today is good for three times its opening at the domestic B.O.; if not even more.
Mystery marketing still works: One publicity executive points out that “Abrams has constructed this wonderful mystery box in the marketing of Super 8, but what is exactly in that box?”  Many have cited this as the culprit for the film’s weak tracking, particularly in this info-glutted social networking age. Fact is, mystique promotions are still attractive.  Look no farther than the record Martin Luther King bow of Abrams’ Cloverfield ($46.1 million): the filmmaker managed to hide the creature’s image from moviegoers. Spielberg, who continues to employ hush branding, even kept his aliens under a blanket during the promotion of 2005’s War of the Worlds.  Such maneuvers didn’t stop the film from scoring $112.7 million during its six-day July 4th Weekend bow. Which brings us to two points:

Showing the Super 8 monster in ads sends the wrong message:  Yes, the film is about a Ohio town that’s ravaged by an alien, but most of the film plays like a human drama against a sci-fi backdrop.  Not to mention, the creature is regulated to cameos throughout the film.  Showing the Super 8 alien in any ad sends the message that it’s a monster movie, and upon seeing it, many will contend – it’s not. 
Paramount really didn’t keep Super 8 a mystery:   It wasn’t until five months before its release that the world had any clue about James Cameron’s Avatar (Fox released the trailer in August of 2009). Paramount on the other hand, has been pushing Super 8 since last May, when it released the teaser during Iron Man 2’s opening frame.  The trailer clearly indicated to those who shelled out $128.1 million to see Iron Man 2 that they could expect an alien/sci-fi film. Paramount ran a Super 8 spot during the Superbowl, which drew an all-time record of 111 million people. The studio has been active about spreading the word with late May screenings.  You can’t say that the studio and team Abrams sat back and kept Super 8 under lock and key.  Furthermore, Abrams isn’t an unknown commodity.  His Lost fanbase numbers at least 13.5 million (those who tuned in for the finale) and if they all spend $10 to see Super 8, the film will mint at least $135 million.  It’s better to be mysterious with a film’s marketing, than misleading: Rogue Pictures teased Catfish ($3.2 million) as another Paranormal Activity-like thriller.  Those leaving theater were irate to learn that it was just a quirky documentary.

Tracking isn’t a perfect science:  Tracking for any film bowing on Friday cannot be relied upon until Thursday when more accurate figures become available.  Potential blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides show up as $100-million-plus openers weeks in advance, only to have their actuals whittled down closer to opening weekend.  As of Monday, Super 8 was showing strongly among men over 25; the Abrams fanbase, at 72% in total awareness.  But the one money sector for Super 8 that no one can pinpoint are the tweens.  With the film’s smart teen protagonists, 10-14 year olds are a shoo-in to love the film. “Similar to the tracking with animated films, they’re a tier we don’t see,” says another distribution exec.

Despite the poo-poo that’s been made about Green Lantern’s total awareness trumping Super 8’s, 86% to 64%, consider that Warner Bros. has spent an estimated $80 million on domestic P&A for the DC Comic adaptation, an excessive amount next to the $50 million Paramount shelled out to promote Super 8 (both studios outspent Universal’s $35 million P&A on Bridesmaids — so the dollars are in the tracking).

With its filmmaker pedigree, Super 8 is no sleeper. But triple hundred returns will come as no surprise. Says one marketing exec recalling the legs of adult films like True Grit: “it’s the year of sticking around at the box office, where films make more than they’re expected.”

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