In the so-called Information Age, a little mystery goes a long way. An entire generation of people is being raised with the complete sum of all human knowledge at their fingertips. At this stage in human evolution, being denied details seems arcane, if not downright cruel. Of course, just because the not knowing infuriates people, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing. Take for example super-producer J.J. Abrams.
He’s built an entire career on mystique and misdirection. Abrams started out as a typical Hollywood hack. He wrote the Harrison Ford amnesia flick Regarding Henry and created the show Felicity. Then something happened. Abrams got a little clout and created a show called Lost. It’s pretty much an overstatement to say that Lost was all about the things you weren’t told. With the success of Lost, Abrams boldly entered the world of feature films by directing Mission Impossible 3. While the only mystery surrounding that film was why Abrams agreed to do it in the first place (the franchise was well past its expiration date), Abrams was able to make the best of what he had to work with.
Then there was Cloverfield.
Love it or hate it, no one can disagree that Abrams and director Matt Reeves were able to take a small film and make it much larger by simply saying nothing. The first teaser trailer debuted in front of the first Transformers film. It was a short scene of a group of hipster New York kids partying… just before something ripped off the Statue of Liberty’s head and chucked it into the city. There was no title, only a cryptic release date: 01-18-08.
A series of viral websites (and an obscure comic book in Japan) followed. Speculation and anticipation were high on the Internet, that bastion of information. Almost immediately, it was “revealed” that the film was a Voltron movie. When that rumor was shot down, Abrams spoke a little about the film being a giant monster flick, in the tradition of Godzilla. Soon, movie message boards were full of threads with “genuine” concept art of the creature. A longer, slightly more substantial trailer was released, but nothing of Abrams’ super-monster was shown. Was Cloverfield worth the attention that it received? Again, that is debatable, but what can’t be debated is that Abrams took a film with a $25 million budget and made over $80 million by using one of the oldest tricks in the book: he refused to give up his secrets.
This glorious Age of Information might as well be called the “Age of Oversaturation” or even the “Age of Instant Gratification.” Cloverfield’s marketing campaign flew in the face of convention by telling and showing us nothing. Abrams knew that nothing he could show us could possibly top whatever freakshow we as an audience could cook up ourselves. Rather than build the perfect monster, Abrams let Cloverfield and its mystery step aside so our collective imaginations could run wild. After all, if there is one thing the human mind cannot stand, it’s a vacuum. Given a spot of blank space, our brains reflexively fill it with whatever’s bubbling in that soupy mess riding between our ears. In essence, Abrams let us do all the heaving lifting for him.
This so-called “anti-marketing” works because as a species we are curious. A three and a half minute trailer detailing every single plot point, showcasing every cool special effect sequence, or giving away all the best jokes does not make us very curious.
If the history books say but one thing about J.J. Abrams, it’ll be written that he helped bring back the movie trailer as a piece of art. Rather than simply cobbling together a “greatest hits” montage of a film, a good trailer should tantalize, tease, and otherwise serve as a cinematic appetizer. A cryptic title like Cloverfield or, in the case off Abrams next movie, Super 8 also helps.
In the case of Super 8, that title (which refers to an older type of motion picture film) gives just as much insight into Abrams and his marketing strategy as it does to the film itself. Abrams seems to want his projects to exist in another era, when people learned about upcoming films by actually watching the previews “as nature intended” in an actual cinema. Before the term “spoilers” became associated with movies that hadn’t yet completed filming. Super 8 is reportedly an homage to the 1970s sci-fi films of Abrams hero Steven Spielberg.
Despite the fact that Super 8 hits theatres this summer, not much is known about the plot. To date, there have been two trailers released (one even aired during the Super Bowl) and yet it is still not clear what the film is about. All that can be ascertained is that a train carrying materials out of the legendary Area 51 crashes in a small town. There are children with a camera, and a guy with a flame-thrower burns things. Is the creature an alien? Could be. Will it try to eat the kids with the “Super 8” camera, or befriend them like ET?
It’s uncertain. The only way to find out will be to buy a ticket, and take the ride. Which is just what Abrams wants us to do.
Do you like Abrams-style of marketing? Or would you like to know more about a film before you see it?