Monday, June 13, 2011

The Tracking Numbers are soft?! Oh shit, we'd better just give away the whole film for free so they'll pay us to see it again!

Last week, one of the big stories in the entertainment business was the "tracking numbers" on Super 8. Honestly, tracking numbers are one of those insider things that really shouldn't concern movie-goers who don't work in the industry but we live in a world where the internet has made this information so accessible that it seems like even causal movie fans are chiming in on this.

I couldn't possibly explain tracking numbers better than Geekweek's Jeff Katz, formerly an exec at Fox and New Line:

If you are unfamiliar with movie tracking, these numbers are the metrics studios use to monitor their marketing strengths and weaknesses and predict their eventual box office performance. While tracking is not always perfect it has long tended to be an accurate indicator of success or failure at the box office.

Our Tracking Report monitors four key categories - Unaided Awareness. Total Awareness. Definite Interest. First Choice -- across the four key audience quads - Men -25, Men 25+, Women -25, Women 25+. The movies that track well across all quads - aka Four Quad Movies - are the ones with a clear chance at blockbuster box office performance.

This is Jeff's Tracking Report for last Friday's opening.

All last week, we kept hearing that the tracking on Super 8 was "soft." Despite the involvement of two of the hottest directors (of both the moment and all-time): Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams, audiences seemingly weren't yet sold on the film. Quickly, the blame was placed on the un-revealing ad campaign. This article on Deadline pretty much establishes the narrative that soon was being repeated on Twitter and on every film-related blog:

When JJ Abrams conceived Super 8, his intention was to replicate those Steven Spielberg films of the 70s and 80s, where he discovered the magic in a movie theater and not by watching every reveal in a commercial. When Spielberg directed or produced films like Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist and Gremlins, finally seeing the creature was half the fun, and they were always kept secret until opening day.

[...]Paramount and Abrams have focused on character and given up little in the creature department in commercials that followed. Days from its Friday opening, rivals say that tracking numbers are soft and would be considerably stronger among young moviegoers had Abrams and the studio given up a glimpse of the creature and playing up that plot line.

Rivals say that there is nervousness at Paramount because the studio has gone so far in embracing Abrams’ now famous desire for utmost secrecy. This is a bold gamble Paramount is taking, at a time when the mission of studio marketers is to deliver the highest possible opening weekend, no matter how many plot highlights and spoilers are sacrificed in TV spots. Several marketing experts I checked were buzzing with the assertion that Par’s decision to protect the purity of the movie-going experience could put the film in an opening weekend hole it will be hard pressed to recover from.

As it turns out, Paramount blinked and on Thursday, it leaked footage that offered a glimpse at the creature.

I don't know who I'm disappointed in: Paramount, for having no trust in the audience; or modern audiences, who have fostered an environment where they demand the trailer reveals every. Last. Surprise. Take a look at this "unrevealing" trailer:

Okay, so from that trailer we glean:

1) It's clearly set in late 70s/early 80s.

2) It focuses on a group of kids who are making a super-8 movie.

3) there's clearly an attraction between one of the kids and the girl

4) during filming, the kids end up witnessing a train crash and catching it on film.

5) what's more, there's a strong indication that the crash had freed something very big and very strong that was being held in the train.

6) The military begins an ominous operation in response to the crash and is being evasive towards local authorities about what was on the train (with a clear implication that something sinister got free.)

7) someone gets attacked by an unseen monster, and there are disappearances and other incidents that local police are at a loss to explain and suspect the military has answers.

8) The montage of action shots suggests - among other things - that the townspeople are headed for a confrontation with whatever was on the train.

Unrevealing, my ass.

I'd say the trailer does a pretty good job of laying out the basic premise as well as a few plot points. The only thing we don't see is the creature itself. The story itself is pretty heavily sold in that trailer. Oh, and it's from the creative minds of Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams, whom you may have heard, have a pretty good track record.

To any of you who might have been in the camp of "Paramount needs to show me more to get my $14," what would seeing the creature do for you that simply knowing the plot isn't already doing? You've already got the genre, the hook and the basic plot - how much more do you need spoon-fed? Also, I'd like to personally thank you for ruining the filmgoing experience for the rest of us. It's no longer possible to sit through a movie trailer without having every money shot, every last point point, every last surprise completely ruined.

Years ago, director Robert Zemeckis defended this practice, saying, "We know from studying the marketing of movies, people really want to know exactly every thing that they are going to see before they go see the movie. It's just one of those things. To me, being a movie lover and film student and a film scholar and a director, I don't. What I relate it to is McDonald's. The reason McDonald's is a tremendous success is that you don't have any surprises. You know exactly what it is going to taste like. Everybody knows the menu."

I tried not to believe that. I like being surprised when I see movies as much as I like being surprised when I read scripts. As someone who tries to write unexpected plot turns and twists into my own scripts, I shudder at the thought that my carefully crafted surprises will be at the mercy of a pinheaded marketing department that will leave no shock unrevealed. This makes no sense - if the most desirable element of the film is given away for free, why would anyone pay to see the rest?

An analogy about a cow and free milk comes to mind. That's the problem - marketing departments are like cheerleaders with low self-esteem. They cling to the belief that they if they put out, everyone will love them.

Then there's the other half of the problem: the entitlement in our culture. People decide they need to know everything before they lay down their money for a film. And god forbid a few seconds of film reveal something that doesn't meet with their standards, such as a superhero costume or starship that isn't designed the way they would have done it.

And the result is boring, predictable films that seem to have been designed by committee, for after creating a situation where no real risks are allowed to be taken Mr. Fickle Viewer then complains about how weak the story is in the latest Transformers sequel, or how all the big summer movies are all flash, no substance, no surprises.

It's not Hollywood's that's ruined movies - it's viewers who insist on having everything ruined for them as a precondition before plunking down their admission fares. If the only thing that would have sold you on Super 8 was seeing what the monster looked like, you deserve the entertainment you get.


  1. Hear, hear!

    My girlfriend and I noticed how especially bad about this the trailers before First Class were. Every one except Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (brilliant trailer) gave away the entire plot AND resolution in the "preview."

    Apparently, feeling something while watching the film is no longer enough. We must feel something while watching the trailer, presumably to convince us the film can deliver an emotional experience at all. The best way to do that, of course, is with story (and music swells in the right place). So now we don't just have three act movies--we have three act trailers.

    Oh well. If the practice continues, it'll save me a lot of time and money at the theater.

  2. I think you are right that trailers are now expected to elicit emotions - and I'm actually ok with that. One thing I really hate is when there's a big tone shift from trailer to actual movie. I want to know; is it funny? Dramatic? Is it a mystery? A romantic comedy? That being said, I don't want all the cool, mysterious, or funny parts given away in the trailer.

  3. YES! Great post -- too many trailers nowadays give away too much and it pisses me off.

  4. If I know that I want to see a movie (based on plot, actors, word-of-mouth, etc.), then I don't watch the trailer. Most of my friends all make fun of me because of this (it doesn't spoil the ending, etc.), but I've been burned one too many times.

    I never saw the trailer for Super 8—not once. And I enjoyed my experience a lot more because of it, I'm sure.

  5. I was with you 100% until you said, "It's not Hollywood's that's ruined movies - it's viewers who insist on having everything ruined for them as a precondition before plunking down their admission fares."

    Putting aside your loaded usage of the word "ruined", the idea that viewers are directly responsible for highly revealing trailers is absurd. These things go both ways. It's a classic chicken-or-egg conundrum.

    As a copywriter, I'll admit, a lot of time is spent trying to understand your consumer so you can give them what they want. What you're forgetting is that we "pinheaded marketers" are also under pressure to deliver maximum ROI on our client's ad spend, which throws another set of requirements into the mix. If revealing trailers are going to ROI, then you'll bet your little team of madmen will be asked to put together a revealing trailer.

    A McDonald's consumer doesn't demand a $2.99 meal deal any more than a film-goer demands an explicit trailer -- these things just trend together.

  6. Too true. With modern communications, it is already difficult enough to remain spoiler-free, I don't want the studio to spoil it for me because they worried about attracting the dufus who is looking for predictable entertainment. You had two incredible track records as insurance. It doesn't get any better than that.

  7. I was enjoying the post until I read:

    2) It focuses on a group of kids who are making a super-8 movie.

    3) there's clearly an attraction between one of the kids and the girl

    Then I couldn't get past the bad feeling that you might not consider 'girls' to be 'kids'. In other words, boys are people and girls are just girls. I hope I'm wrong.

  8. Yes, Nicola. Clearly the most reasonable inference to draw from those two bullet points is that I don't think girls are people and that I parced my words very carefully to deliver that insult so subtly that only overly-sensitive types such as yourself could detect evidence of my true agenda.

    And just when I had all my other readers fooled!

  9. I made a bet with myself about your response. I lost. Disappointing.

  10. I wonder if Zemeckis was defending the loathsome trailer for Cast Away when he said that - a trailer that gives away the fact that Hanks' character gets off the island. When your story is about someone who gets marooned on an island, a big dramatic question is whether or not they ever get home. It might not be the point of the movie, but it's still a huge deal.

    When your story features a mystery about what could have escaped a derailed military train and now poses a threat(?) to a small town, that's a big dramatic question.

    I hate what trailers have become. I do what Jesse does and go into a self-imposed media blackout for movies I want to see.

  11. Way to defend your thoughtlessness, Bitter Script Reader, and compound it into an actual insult.

    Least effort: you correct one word: change the sentence to "One of the boys and the girl" and you're good. It's also a more accurate sentence. Maybe you apologize and note the correction, or even let it go unnoticed.

    Most effort: you dig yourself a hole and in the process spell "parsed" wrong. On top of that, you use the word incorrectly: you ought have written "I chose my words very carefully." We, the readers, parse your words.

  12. Justy - I have little patience for people who go out of their way to stir up shit over things that were clearly not meant to offer offense. I'm not going to apologize for someone's over-sensitivity, particularly when their manufactured outrage leads them to not only comment but to make the same statement to me on Twitter just in case I didn't see it the first time.

    I think everyone who read the original sentence knew what I meant. I don't appreciate being called a woman-hater in a passive-aggressive tone because someone chooses to deliberately misinterpret my words.

  13. ...because unexamined assumptions about gender NEVER backfire? I don't think you meant to be offensive...but I DO think you "othered" women in that sentence by presuming "male" as the default. The fact that you went on the defensive immediately & then re-stated a straw man argument of what Nicola said...just makes me think she was probably right to call you out on it.

  14. Well, when someone does attack you and accuse you of hating women, putting the lie to that does tend to put you on the defensive.

    If she was trying to be helpful, she could have said, "Hey, you might want to take a look at this sentence, someone might get the wrong idea." Instead, she chose to take offense, saying passive-aggressively:

    "Then I couldn't get past the bad feeling that you might not consider 'girls' to be 'kids'. In other words, boys are people and girls are just girls."

    Which is a ridiculous accusation to make. Then she tweeted it to me to, in a way that ensured all her followers saw her accusing of saying women aren't people.

    I find that pretty rude and obnoxious. And if you come into my house with that attitude, you're going to get what you dish out. You can attack my retort as snippy, but you'd damn well better take the accuser to task for their rude manners as well.

  15. This is what happens when you allow responses on a blog. Everyone who can respond feels ownership over the whole situation. Anyone who would take the comments as negative should just delete this bookmark and move back to Entertainment Weekly.

    As far as trailers go, I dont think moviegoers really want to see the while story in the trailer. They want to know - not hope - that the performances and story will be good.

    Viewers dont want to see an actor and actress with no chemistry paired up simply because they are big names. A no name in one role who craetes amazing chemistry is a far better proposition. The only problem is viewers cannot trust the no name having nothing to go on. This was not a problem back in the day, but now we have so little faith in studios that we ahve fallen into this trap. I dont know how to fix it. Maybe a series of small movies will have to make big money and outperform big budget rivals with relative unknowns in major roles. Possibly Oscar winning roles.

    I dont know how you prove to a viewer that the story will be good all the way through. We obviously have relationships with certain directors, but other than that, there is nothing to go on. I think this is part of the reason we see so many sequels, reboots, and movies based on toys. Maybe movies frmo unknown directors/studios should cost less to view than the big budget competitors. This would incentivise viewers to see more movies with less info.

  16. IMO Nicola was fairly diplomatic in her comment. She was giving you the benefit of the doubt. She said she hoped she was wrong and gave you the opportunity to clarify your words. She certainly didn't "accuse you of hating women."

    The problem and the reason Nicola took time out of her life to make the point, is that while offense is not consciously intended, that kind of word usage points to the greater problem in our society of gender inequality. Seemingly small things like the subtleties in ordinary conversation and public forums contribute to perpetuating the problem, and the fact that it is often unconscious is why it needs to be pointed out. If we remain silent about these things, we contribute to the problem.

    I appreciate Nicola for making the effort to point these things out. Most of us are too lazy and too afraid.

    Words are important. Nicola is not overly-sensitive, she's a brilliant writer who understands the power of words.

    And I agree with Mordicai; the fact that you are so defensive and accusatory makes one wonder.

    Oh, and I hate trailers that give away too much of the movie.

  17. I stand by my characterization that Nicola was being passive-aggressive. It's also interesting that there was a comment accusing me of pulling a straw man, when it seems a few of you are playing the "If you defend yourself then obviously you are defensive and guilty" card. I don't stand for these sorts of accusations, whether they're aimed at me, or some of the regular readers of this blog.

    Also, if it took one sentence to cast suspicion that I'm anti-female then clearly you haven't been at this blog long. I regularly rail against sexism in screenplays and films.

  18. Can we start again?

    I certainly didn't mean to accuse you of hating women. If that's how I came across (and clearly I did), I apologise. You're right, this is your house. I could have been more clear. I'm sorry for that.

    So here's my assumption: you weren't thinking/were just having an off day when you labelled kids as kids and girls as Other. I was having an off day for not explaining my reasoning. You were having an off day when you then responded. I didn't respond well to your response. (Etc.)

    I've enjoyed your blog for a couple of years. (I'm not a random stranger looking to stir up trouble. I had just reached my limit on the treatment of women in other contexts. My bad to bring it here.)

    It's interesting to be accused of being passive-aggressive. (I've been accused of being aggressive before, but not p-a.) I'll do my best to learn from this. I hope we both do.

    Anyway, I hope you accept my apology, and we can shake hands and move on. (I'd also be happy to take this discussion off line if you think either of us would benefit from that.)

  19. Nicola - apology accepted, hands shaken, slate cleaned. I absolutely read your sincerity here, and I commend you for offering the apology in the same forum as the initial communication.

    Hopefully this puts the matter to rest as far as everyone else is concerned too.

  20. Nicola, from my reading of BSR's words, yes you obviously are wrong. If you were in the police force I'd probably be asking you "shouldn't you be out there arresting *real* criminals". All in my humble opinion. I would guess that you are not overly sensitive but rather have an agenda. I hope I am wrong.

  21. MalDelNorte - I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you were composing that reply as Nicola posted her response and thus, didn't see it. For everyone else, going forward I'd hope that the attacks on both sides have concluded.

  22. I love the way every argument someone dislikes is dismissed as "an agenda." The right wing do that with gay issues (resulting in very fun riffs on what a "gay agenda" might actually look like). While I don't want to extend this discussion, I would like to point out briefly to MalDelNorte that there's absolutely nothing wrong with having an agenda of bettering the lives of women and girls. It's frequently referred to as 'feminism' and it remains necessary even in North America so long as women continue to earn 70 cents for every dollar men make, etc., etc.

  23. Thanks BSR, for the benefit of the doubt. It's easy to go grasping the wrong end of the stick in this textual medium. I was indeed tapping away as Nicola was humbly appologising. I just didn't want to see you discouraged from spending your time sharing your valuable thoughts with us on your blog. Alexis, yes of course, sexism is indeed alive and well alas (just not on this blog ;).

    Anyway, on the subject of trailers I guess it does boil down to what do you show to pull in the maximum total audience. Once your script has been bought, it becomes in most cases (for the purchasers) an exercise in squeezing as much dinero out of it as possible. Perhaps we need a secondary rating system on trailers indicating how much they give away? (With an X rating for any trailer showing any 3rd act goodies?) We already have several different trailers per film on the Web (I've seen 3 for Super8). Why can't we have a spoiler free version?

  24. Not noticed it so much recently because I don't watch may trailers, but I remmember 'Bridget Jones' including all the vaguely funny gags inthe trailer, so that when you saw the film, they seemed tired.

    And what about 'Wild Wild West'? That trailer was better than the entire film, and blissfully shorter.

  25. Not that I'm trying to stir this up again, but I don't think the bullet points in question were a result of our collective (and often unconscious) cultural gender bias. It seems to me this is a result of the effective shorthand that has developed around the way stories are told--in relation to the protagonist.

    As I remember the trailer, it's clear that the focus of the film will be on the director/boy and the Sheriff/father. Therefore in this story the differentiation in Bitter's description of "the girl" as a romantic story function is not uncalled for. It seems he's talking about the archetype and not the specific character (since this is based on a trailer and names or more defining character traits are unavailable).

    Were the story written as a group of mostly female children with one obvious male love interest, I'm sure the sentence would have read, "there's clearly an attraction between one of the kids and the boy." If anything that version seems to be more biased against females, possibly suggesting that the girls can be easily lumped together but the boy deserves special mention precisely because he is male.

    It's amazing how ineffective our words can be at achieving communication when separated from the body language and voice that go with them.