There’s a generation of filmmakers who are as known for the movies they made as young children or students as for anything they may have produced during their adult years. These are the guys who hit their stride in the late 60’s and early 70’s and whose backyard productions and student films have become the stuff of legend. The two primary examples of this are, of course, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Speilberg’s biography is always heavy on references to how the director created all sorts of single reel shorts in his backyard and Lucas’ on his unique film school productions. In both cases these match up with the public image of the directors, with Spielberg still being seen as that excitable little boy with a handheld camera and Lucas (more or less) as someone who’s going to do whatever he wants regardless of what anyone else thinks.
The new movie Super 8 uses as its starting point the story of a group of friends in a small Texas town in 1979 who have set out to make their own movie using a Super 8 camera. It’s a group of misfits with Joe (Joel Courney) as their director. Because of their fascination with monster movies and science fiction stories Joe’s dad Jackson (Kyle Chandler), who’s also the local deputy, doesn’t want his son hanging around with them as much as he thinks they’re all a bad influence. One night while shooting near the local railroad tracks a train derails and strange things begin happening around town. Over the next few days dogs disappear, electronics stop working, engines are torn apart and more, all completely baffling to the sheriff. When the military comes into town to take over the investigation things turn from mysterious to ominous as more questions arise than are answered.
Directed by mystery-man J.J. Abrams and produced by Spielberg himself, the movie isn’t meant to be so much a story about what life was like back in the 1970s or anything like that but instead a love letter to the type of movies Spielberg and others made in this era, the kind of wide-eyed wonders that captured the imagination of a generation of moviegoers who watched with wonder as Richard Dreyfuss built a mountain in his living room and such like that.
The first – and only – poster for the movie was every bit as interesting as the movie itself promised to be. While the title and main credits for Abrams and Spielberg are oriented traditionally, the image of the five kids and their small camera standing on the landscape and everything around them is sideways so you have to turn your head to the right to see it correctly. That additional real estate gives the design not only a unique perspective but it also simply gives the image more space to breath and gives you a sense of the scope of the action, which is simultaneously huge and very small-scale. Great stuff.
The first trailer, released in May, famously contained no footage that would be in the actual movie since it hadn’t, of course, been shot yet. Instead it’s all about setting the table for the movie and beginning to build anticipation.
The trailer shows a train speeding down the track as on-screen text informs us about a government plan to shut down portions of Area 51 in 1979 and transport materials to a location in Ohio, with the train presumably then being the method of said transportation. But suddenly a pick-up truck slams through the gates on a dark night and then turns to run head-on into the train, making it clear it’s not an accident. The wreck that ensues sends the entire train careening off the tracks, with all the cars flying around wildly. When the dust settles a bit the camera focuses on one car laying on its side. Suddenly something starts pounding from the inside of the car, dents appearing in the metal until the door of the car comes flying off. And with that the on-screen text informs us that whatever it is that’s inside is arriving now.
It is an enormously effective trailer in terms of getting people talking about the movie. Indeed because it didn’t contain any film footage (at least according to Abrams), the entire point seems to have been to generate buzz, not only based on the fact that it debuted in front of Iron Man 2, the biggest movie of the summer at that point, as well as the fact that it served as a jumping off point for the online ARG aspect of the campaign.
Quite a while later the first full-length trailer (released on Twitter) was released that gave quite a few more details as to the plot. It starts off by setting up the main characters we’ll be watching, a group of kids in a small rural town that are trying to make their own monster movie. But the one kid’s dad isn’t thrilled about that and wants him to find other friends. Then a train derails right in the middle of downtown, a train containing something mysterious. The kids continue to film despite the military presence that descends on the town, the disappearance of people and dogs and other strange goings-on. The kids take it upon themselves to figure out what’s going on and seem to be the only believers in town.
The trailer shows very clearly that the movie is just going to ooze with the aura of both Spielberg and Abrams, combining the strengths of the two into something that just might be glorious. The action here moves along nicely and almost nothing of any substance is shown. Instead it’s all about playing into the emotions of the audience, promising a couple hours in the theater that are filled with an intriguing story and interesting characters as well as kind of a cool monster movie.
The trailer does, though, contain some of the same footage that was seen in the teaser so some of the hype from earlier might have been just that.
Just a half a week from release another trailer, a 90-second version that was also sort of a TV spot, debuted during the “2011 MTV Movie Awards.” This one starts off in much the same way as the previous version – with the train accident that happens while the kids are filming – but then goes into some new territory. It highlights much more the mysterious happenings and the military response to those happenings, with lots of scenes of military people acting very suspiciously about what they are or aren’t looking for. While the short running time means there’s an inherent tightness to the spot there’s also a lot of new stuff here in terms of the investigations being run – one by adults and one by kids – into what has broken loose in this small town.
The official website opens and begins playing one of the 30-second TV spots that was produced and released. That in and of itself says something about how the campaign here is trying to reach a mass audience who’s more interested in some spectacle than with deep stuff about shooting a movie and an emotional investigation into the mystery.
The “Story” section just has a one-paragraph synopsis of the plot while the “Gallery” has 20 stills from the movie and “Videos” has both trailers and six TV spots, including the Super Bowl commercial. “Cast, Crew & Notes” is still labeled as Coming Soon, unfortunately.
There are also links to a couple sections that will be covered down below.
As with Cloverfield there was a wide-ranging ARG that launched at about the same time as the first teaser trailer.
The game started off with a link, barely visible at the end of the trailer, to the site ScariestThingIEverSaw which took people to the remote desktop of an old green-screen computer monitor. The biggest thing there was a countdown clock that, once it expired, prompted people to print out the screen. Only what they printed wasn’t the screen but a series of newspaper pages containing an ad for the Rocket Popppeteers.
When the pages were printed and re-aligned, more clues began to emerge involving a PO Box in Minot, North Dakota and what might potentially have been a warning from the same person whose computer was being accessed previously.
The Rocket Poppeteer viral was revitalized briefly around Comic-Con, with an ice cream truck featuring that branding tooling around the San Diego convention center including a Twitter account that informed followers where the truck would be. Someone was also there handing out t-shirts. Shortly after that an official website for the Poppeteers was launched that played in to the brand’s “legacy.” The efforts continued at other events appealing to fans, including New York Comic-Con.
The viral continued with other websites, occasionally coming back into the real world as those who had signed up to become Poppeteers received their certificates and such. Eventually more chats and clues were unveiled after the discovery of the Hook, Line and Minker website, which gave some clues as to the passwords to access new material.
A more serious online “viral” effort kicked in after the release of the first full-length trailer. That trailer contained an Easter Egg URL that led to an Editing Room portion of the official website that contained filmstrip footage from government cameras, most of which was missing aside from a few clips of scientists talking about something’s biology and such. More clips were unlocked after packages of actual 8mm film were sent to various press outlets that prompted them to check out the footage online as well. Updates would continue to be made to the Editing Room as more clips were unveiled and more promotional material sent out to the press. There was also a section of the official site called the “Development Room” but you had to request access to that by using Facebook Connect and only select people were approved. How exactly that paid off I haven’t heard yet.
The movie’s Facebook page has the usual array of photos, vidoes and updates on promotional and marketing activities. Similar updates can be found on the Twitter profile, though that was also put into serious duty surrounding the release of the first full theatrical trailer and for some other purposes and I have to say it was nice to see someone actually figure out how to use Twitter effectively for movie marketing purposes.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
The movie was one of those that Paramount announced it would be advertising during Super Bowl XLV this year. The spot that aired feels very much like a cross between Abrams and Speilberg but tells very little about the story. We see the same sort of train accident we did in the teaser trailer, but this time there’s also some human beings involved. There’s a young boy, a camera, a police officer, various army guys looking very put out and more. We never get a shot of whatever the alien or monster or whatever is – some people think there’s a glimpse or two in there somewhere – but we do see the havoc that it’s bringing to this small Americana town, which appears to be substantial.
The version of the commercial that aired didn’t seem to be the final one though, as reports came in that new images were being inserted into the ending of the video on Apple.com on some sort of regular basis that provided different clues about the movie’s story.
Right after the Super Bowl spot aired an online campaign started with ads that featured footage and scenes that were shown in that commercial.
More TV advertising was done in a commercial spot that ran 60 seconds in length and featured just the slightest amount of new footage while bridging the gap between the previous TV ads and the first full trailer. Further TV spots would be run, with some of them playing up the action and horror elements of the movie while others played it as more of a mystery film. Some commercials even included footage and audio of the scientists that are hinted at in the online ARG (more on that below) talking about the mystery of the object they’re studying and what the potential ramifications could be if it escaped. That filled in some of the gaps between the online and more traditional campaigns without giving away too much.
An interactive trailer for the movie was included in copies of the Portal 2 video game that let people run around inside the train that is featured in the movie just prior to and just after the crash that’s depicted. While there wasn’t anything to interact with various clues were seen in the environment. This trailer showed the door being smashed off of the train car the creature, whatever it is, escapes from and overall this is a pretty cool promotion for the movie.
The outdoor/in-theater ad displays that were placed got into the “viral” game, with some of them containing a secret hole to look in and get clues on how to unlock clips in the “Editing Room” part of the online experience.
The movie got some serious screentime during one of the last few episodes of “American Idol” with the finalists visiting the Bad Robot production offices and getting a sneak peak of the movie along with some Super 8 cameras of their own from Abrams to document their trips to their hometowns.
A surprise movie-related insert in some recent DC Comic issues featured a blank panel where people could create their own artwork and submit it, though what happened then is still a bit unclear.
There was an interesting check-in based promotion that was run in conjunction with 7-Eleven. Every 88th person to check-in at one of the chain’s convenience stores won tickets to see the movie and other multiples of 88 were entered to win a zero-gravity flight or even a sub-orbital trip into space. There were also Rocket Poppeteers branded cups for Slurpees and a “Berry Blaster” flavor of the icy treat, though all that was sans any overt branding for the movie. That tie-in (MediaPost, 6/3/11) was supported with radio and online advertising.
Media and Publicity
The movie first hit some people’s radars when rumors began surfacing that a secret teaser trailer for it would be attached to 2010’s Iron Man 2. Few details were available since the trailer seemed to be not a physical print that could be screened beforehand but a digital file that had a date-sensitive lock keeping it safe until Iron Man’s initial screenings.
There then came much speculation as to what the movie was actually about. Half the internet thought it was some sort of tie-in to the Abrams’-created Cloverfield, half the internet insisted it had nothing to do with that movie. It wasn’t until just before the first teaser trailer was released that details started to come into focus, though even those were just about the production and not anything about the movie or its story.
An interview with Abrams at Comic-Con 2010 was not all that insightful in terms of additional plot details, but it did continue the theme of much of the early press coverage in that it emphasized the director’s wanting the movie to be an homage to Steven Spielberg, both as a director and as someone who Abrams idolized as a youth.
At the same time the Super Bowl spot debuted, giving the audience their first look at actual footage from the movie, the first real in-depth story (Los Angeles Times, 2/6/11) about the film appeared, with Abrams giving some (still cryptic) details about the story and how it’s actually the conglomeration of a few different story ideas that never got completely fleshed out. The story talks at length about how Abrams turned to Spielberg and others for inspiration and advice about various aspects of casting and filming, reinforcing the notion that Abrams is first and foremost a huge movie fan.
There was plenty of press generated by the release of the first full-length trailer, not so much for the contents of the trailer or what it showed but the fact that it was released on Twitter (MediaPost, 3/11/11) and utilizing Twitvid for hosting the video. That tactic was specifically utilized because, according to the studio, they wanted to go for the most efficient way for people to spread the trailer themselves. The claim was that this was the first time it had happened (CNET, 3/11/11) but that’s up for interpretation.
More buzz was created after Paramount screened 22 minutes of the movie’s footage for the press as part of their 2011 preview presentation. The footage, by all accounts, played like gangbusters for the crowd and eliminated any nagging concerns in the audience that the movie wouldn’t live up to its potential.
The screening of some footage was also the centerpiece of the presentation at the CinemaCon (Hollywood Reporter, 3/29/11) exhibition industry trade show, where it was one of the titles Paramount brought to impress theater owners, and the studio brought 40 whole minutes of footage to the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for the insiders there.
Just a week or so out from release there was a huge feature on Abrams (New York Times, 5/29/11) and how he was so interested in mysteries, creating movies, TV shows and more – as well as their attendant marketing campaigns – that were wrapped in question marks and the unknown, something that keeps the audience always guessing as to what might be coming next. Similar, though smaller scale, features would eventually run that made it clear how much this movie is true to Abrams’ small-scale production philosophy (Wired 6/7/11) and how the director was constantly trying to channel Speilberg and the Amblin mindset (Time, 6/7/11) as he was in production.
Just about a week from release a new site, Super8Secret.com, appeared and seemed to be tied in some way to a Twitter hashtag and Facebook page. It was eventually revealed as a site where people could sign up for free advance screenings of the movie, something obviously being done to get people talking about the film to their friends and connections.
As mentioned above the movie got some promotional love during the “2011 MTV Movie Awards” with Speilberg, Abrams and much of the younger cast hitting the stage to introduce the new trailer and make an unstated appeal for young people to be in the audience (LAT, 6/6/11) when the movie opens.
Because the movie comes from Abrams it’s inevitable that the campaign will be judged against that for 2008’s Cloverfield, which he may not have directed but was no less integral in making. That campaign featured what was at the time a revolutionary usage of online video, hidden clues on mysterious websites and other really innovative online techniques, all of which kept people talking about the movie in advance of its release. That alternate-reality-game was so massive it dwarfed, to some extent, the more traditional campaign that was run closer to the film’s release and which was meant to reach the average moviegoer who couldn’t care less who Jamie and Teddy were.
The ARGs for this movie don’t seem to be quite as substantial in scale but, I suspect, are at least somewhat more closely tied to the movie’s story. That’s particularly true of the “Editing Room” component, which has been dealing out small clues relating to what it is that has escaped in the small town the movie’s set in.
Aside from that there’s a very good campaign going on here that sells the intent of the movie as well as the movie itself quite well. Watch the shot of XXX warning about the coming train collision and it takes you right back to similar reaction shots in any Spielberg movies from the late 70s through the mid 80s. The TV spots and trailers all work together nicely and there’s certainly brand consistency throughout all the marketing elements here.
What remains to be seen, though, is if the average moviegoer is up for any sort of mystery this summer. Last year Inception broke out as a largely unexpected hit despite its being more challenging for the audience to wrap its collective head around than any of the sequels, franchise launches or adaptations that were sold with campaigns that told people exactly what they could expect. Lightening could strike again and audiences could give in to the curiosity that’s been created here, giving the movie a shot despite not having everything laid out for them in clear block letters.
NOTE: A big thanks to Super 8 News, which has been following all aspects of the campaign, including lots of the ARG developments, very closely.
PICKING UP THE SPARE
- 06/08/11 – A fan-made poster done in the style of the legendary Drew Struzan caused a bit of ruckus for a while when people thought it was really from that artist, something mildly believable because of his long-standing connections with Spielberg.
- 06/08/11 – The Twitter tie-in got a lot of press from ClickZ, WSJ and many other tech-oriented publications and sites.
- 06/09/11 – The full “Editing Room” video was released just the day before the movie hit theaters, an obvious attempt to get people who may have felt some of the mystery was off-putting more comfortable with things. I’m surprised to see it released, though, since this would have made a great easter egg on the DVD.
- 06/14/11 – Simon Dumeneco at AdAge theorizes that positive buzz on Twitter helped the movie achieve its opening weekend win but I remain a little skeptical on that front since I still see Twitter as only a fraction of overall word-of-mouth.
- 06/14/11 – Abrams made a brief appearance on Quora to answer a few questions and engage in some dialogue.