'Super 8' and the box office: Do YOU think it 'surpassed expectations?' If so, what does that say about what we expect?

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Image Credit: Film Images

If you’re an entertainment junkie, the fascination of the weekend box-office report is that all those cold, hard numbers represent an objective index — the most honest one we have — of the interface between the movie industry and the public. How well a movie is doing really means two things at once: how profitable it is for the studio that made it; and how popular it is with the people. Those two things tend to go together, and should. But in the nearly 30 years that following the box office has gone from being a weekly inside-baseball game to a media-driven spectator sport, other elements besides numbers have entered the equation. There is studio spin. There is the awareness — at times, the over-awareness — that every movie, based on budget and marketing, writes its own rules. Then, of course, there’s that deeply elusive concept that exists at the opposite end of the spectrum from raw numerical data. It’s called expectations.

This past weekend, Super 8, the back-to-the-late-’70s otherworldly home-movie/train-wreck/beastie spectacular directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, made $35.5 million at the box office (per-screen average: $10,492). In any universe that can be called sane, that is not chump change. It was the definition of a solid performance; it was also not exactly record-setting, in fact or in spirit. And yet, everywhere you looked (trade papers, fan sites, newspapers), observers were united in a single breathless cry: The movie hadn’t just done well — it had surpassed expectations.

The logic went something like this. Super 8 is one of the few big-scale movies opening this summer that is not a sequel, a remake, or a comic-book action rouser with a built-in fan base. It also has no stars. And so, within our popcorn-on-steroids movie universe, it had a bit of an uphill battle. And it emerged, during that crucial first weekend, victorious.

There’s another way to look at it, though, and I say this without any backlash impulse to knock the film’s performance. Super 8 is the huge new summer movie from J.J. Abrams, the director of Star Trek and the co-creator of Lost. It’s also a Steven Spielberg production that’s designed to evoke some of the most beloved movies that Spielberg ever made. If it lacks the built-in advantage of being a sequel/remake/comic-book/rehash, that’s also a central aspect of the film’s appeal. It’s the rare movie this summer that’s really trying for something. Which raises the question: Do we now occupy a movie landscape in which a film as hooky and ambitious (and acclaimed) as Super 8, by virtue of the fact that it’s trying to be original, and that it’s aimed at adults as much as it is kids, has taken on the status of — gulp! — an art film?

The whole hey, it’s not a sequel! conceit starts to come apart at the seams when you compare the box-office performance of Super 8 with that of several noteworthy films that didn’t come out in the summer. This past March, for instance, Battle: Los Angeles (pictured above, right) made $35.5 million in its opening weekend, exactly what Super 8 did. The movie wasn’t a sequel, it wasn’t based on a comic book, and it didn’t have stars, unless you count Aaron Eckhart, an actor I like who isn’t exactly Mr. Marquee. True, this alien-invasion thriller did recyle a lot of other movies — but then, so does Super 8. The biggest difference between them, as far as I can tell, is that Battle: Los Angeles was a noisy, overblown, and monotonous firepower-meets-F/X bash. Yet no one in the press said so much as a syllable about it “surpassing expectations.”

Then, of course, there’s Cloverfield. That 2008 thriller, produced by J.J. Abrams, grossed $41 million in its opening weekend. It wasn’t a sequel, it wasn’t based on a comic book, and it really had no stars. What it did have, of course, was a spectacularly catchy low-rent concept: Basically, it was Godzilla shot with a Blair Witch camera. Like a lot of people, I enjoyed Cloverfield without pretending that it was a very good movie, and at the time its instant popularity seemed to be no great shock. No one talked about it “surpassing expectations,” even though it came out in January, for chrissakes — hardly as popular a movie moment as the first half of June. Yes, it was a big old greasy-popcorn monster movie. But then, Super 8, when you get right down to it, is also a big old greasy-popcorn monster movie. It’s just not one that consumers instantly perceive to be a glorified piece of junk.

And there’s the rub. This weekend, when the infotainment pundits rose up as one to declare that Super 8, with its perfectly respectable and modest $35 million gross, had “surpassed expectations,” they may have been channeling a bit of studio spin, but what they were really saying, in essence, was: No movie that isn’t pandering, that isn’t an over-the-top turn-off-your-brain extravaganza — even if it’s crafted by entertainers as powerful, in every sense, as J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg — can truly be expected to be a major hit. They were saying that Super 8, by virtue of trying to be a really good movie, is now closer in spirit to being a relatively marginal “prestige” movie than it is to being a natural-born blockbuster. And that’s enough to give one pause about what all of us are expecting — not from the weekend box-office returns, but from today’s audiences.

So what did you think of the box office performance of Super 8? Has the movie’s success been overstated? Do you think it will continue to perform? Or is there simply too much competition out there from movies that don’t aim high?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

Comments (114 total) Add your comment
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  • andy

    I think it seems low for a summer flick. I saw it opening night and thought it was good… not great. It lacked emotion, character developement was poor, and the writing wasn’t very sharp. It was just so so… wouldn’t watch it again.

    • Elizabeth

      Lacked emotion? #Fail

    • andy

      The emotion just felt forced… maybe it was just the mood I was in Friday.

      • ericalina

        **spoiler maybe**

        i kind of agree, andy, though i admit i went in expecting more heart/emotion between the “creature” and the kids (kind of like ET), not between the kids themselves, so maybe i’ll see it again with a new spin on things…overall i did enjoy it though!

      • Bob

        It wasn’t a movie about a creature. Sure, that was one of the subplots, but it wasn’t the main story.

      • ericalina

        bob, that’s why i said i went “in” expecting one thing, and that ended up not being the case – and based on all of the secretive previews, was i wrong to expect it might be about an alien/creature/monster? i understand now what the movie was about, and feel satisfied after i adjusted my expectations.

    • graeme

      Lacked emotion and character development? Huh? Couldn’t disagree more. This had more emotion and great characters than I’ve seen in a long time in a summer blockbuster, and certainly a “monster” movie.

    • Manny

      I thought the movie was fantastic! Certainly better than all other movies that came out this year.

      • Glenn

        I can’t understand how it was hyped up so much. This was a boring, silly movie.

      • JD

        @Glenn you’re a moron. How was this boring? Just because it wasn’t a stupid 100% action dumb-fest means its boring.

      • EB

        agreed

      • EB

        i dislike your comment very much Glenn

      • jsz

        Agreed, boring movie. I wasn’t really entertained at all. I found myself checking my watch half-way through. Knew what the obvious ending was going to be pretty much at that point and had to suffer the last half just to let it happen.

    • Matt

      Baffling comment. Character development and emotional impact, compared to just about any other mainstream movie you can name, are exactly what Super 8 *did* do right. I think Andy is saying ‘emotion’ when he means ‘thrills’ and ‘character development’ when he means ‘caricatures’.

    • Marie

      Lacked emotion??? People in my theater were laughing, cheering and half of them were in tears by the end. This is the ONLY film I’ve seen so far this summer that has evoked any kind of real emotion. The characters’ interactions and relationships were realistic and touching. It’s not meant to be strictly an adventure/ monster movie at all…and that’s what some people aren’t getting.

    • kgb

      Perfect review, summed up exactly. I wanted to like this movie, as I hate most other movies and had high hopes for this one, but this review is spot on.

    • Bill

      I thought they stuck ET, Goonies and a few others into a blender and came up with a lackluster product.

  • AliB

    I think it’s all about positive spin. I saw the movie and really adored it, but I was disappointed with how much it made in the box office. However, hearing that it surpassed expectations did boost my thoughts about its perfomance. I guess it’s mission accomplished.

  • yes

    cloverfield wasn’t directed by abrams, but was produced by him. although your point is well taken about its form and content being similar to super8

    • @Owen

      Yet again Owen twists facts to fit his theories and project ideas which are not actually evident. Cloverfield most DEFINITELY surpassed opinions, most of the press around it was all about how successful its first weekend was– I believe the best opening weekend in January of all time.

  • DW

    I think it’s an accomplishment any time an original film makes this much money in one weekend, whether it’s a terrible film like Battle LA or a great one like Super 8. Anything but another comic book movie or sequel, please!

    • Nathan

      Very true, Battle: LA was a massive disappointment and such a missed opportunity, but hey, at least the poster was nice!

  • Bethie R.

    Given that the premise of the movie was kept underwraps for so long, I think Super 8 did very well. Most of the ginormous blockbuster record-setting movies get so much hype ahead of time, you practically know the entire story before you get to the theater. Going to see Super 8 was like picking a book up that has a plain cover with nothing but the title on it – you had no idea what to expect. What will be telling is to see if it has legs – if the next fews weeks it will gain momentum.
    We saw it Sunday night. I was slightly disappointed – based on critics’ reviews, I expected to love this movie. It was good, not great.

    • LOL

      Agreed. Good but not great. Doubt it gets much repeat viewing.

      • anne

        I’ve seen it twice. I really liked it upon first viewing and was kind of surprised that many comment boards slammed it for plot holes, bad writing, etc. I saw it again the next night and I this time I noticed some of the deficiencies that other viewers had complained about but actually I think Abrams left this movie a little rough and unpolished on purpose–I think the Super8 movie of the title refers not only to the movie within the movie that the kids were making but to the big movie, itself. Kind of meta. Not sure how to explain it concisely. (I liked the movie even more after seeing it the second time.)

      • ericalina

        anne, i agree about the super-8/meta aspect. i said to a few people that i felt like the fact that the kids survive what feel like non-survivable incidents, as well as the fact that they just seem to be able to do whatever they want throughout, despite heavy military presence…well it seemed to me that Super 8 (the movie) would have been the kind of space monster movie those kids would have made on their own.

      • LMFAO

        Ericalina, good points. Explosions right next to them have no effect. Military all around, yet they run free most of the time. It was a bit much.

  • Elizabeth

    It met and surpassed all of my expectations. But I don’t need to have my mind made up before I head into an experience. I might read a review, but that’s not going to make up my mind as to whether I’m going or not.

    We’ve put too much power in the hands of the business side and taken it away from creative and the audience.

  • alex

    I happened to thoroughly enjoy Super 8 and feel somewhat disappointed in its opening. There are way too many sequels out there and it’s sad when a movie that’s an original (though almost a carbon-copy of a speilberg film) and better made than most fluff out there isn’t getting viewers that it deserves. It really shows how downhill movies have gotten recently.

    • anne

      I think it will endure and its audience will grow.

  • Bettina

    Ha. As I’m reading your comment, I notice a picture of the Green Lantern staring at me from the corner of the page.

    • Bettina

      Um, that was supposed to be posted under DW. Sorry.

  • KEaton

    It surpassed expectations because apparently it wasn’t tracking very well leading up to the release, and the studio thought it would only be a modest hit. But when it made a fairly big opening this weekend people were surprised that it actually did well. I actually thought it would make somewhere in the $40-$45 million area given all the hype.

  • jets

    that “expectations” aspect is simply used to spin a movie’s B.O. as succesful. It’s a marketing tool, since people want to align themselves with perceived successes and distance themselves from perceived failures: “perspective” being the word there. …I’m not anti super 8 at all, but what annoyed me about the B.O. reporting was that they usually included statements about X-Men “underperforming”, as if to set up this narrative between this little underdog hero battling and triumphing over this comic-book, built in fan base, fx heavy, summer movie corporate monster. When that’s not the case at all. X-Men is also a good movie, and a success. …also I want it to do well, so they’ll make more, which is also why the negative B.O. reporting annoyed me.

    • Joe

      I love your review “jets” I thought Xmen 1st class was well acted; and I enjoyed it more than super 8. Despite the fact that if you saw/read any Xmen films or comics you basically knew what was going to happen.

      Super 8’s marketing and buzz purported itself to be “J.J. Abrams the 2nd coming of S. Spielberg!” Great mysterious sci-fi film. And then it seems a week or so before release(maybe it tested poorly) the studio retreated to “well the film only cost us 50 mill to make so we’re not expecting it to do THAT well”…

  • gman

    I think EW got it wrong with the pictures! The picture of Nia Peeples is from the low budget ScyFy TV movie “Battle of Los Angeles”, which was on tv the day after “Battle: Los Angeles” premiered.

    • ding

      Thank you…I was trying to figure out what that picture had to do with Super 8.

  • Rita

    Liked the acting (by mostly unknowns). Touched on all the Spielberg themes (kids, father issues, absent parents, evil authority figures). The alien seemed very like the alien in the upcoming “Falling Skies”, product placement (?). Was underwhelmed by the movie – derivative, uneven, and it felt like the director was having problems finding an appropriate ending so he stuck on the ending from “ET”. Expecting so much more from Abrams and Spielberg and the movie just doesn’t deliver. The kids completed zombie movie is a hoot, however.

  • Johnification

    Maybe I’m just one of those moviegoers whose imagination and emotion-for-film are sky high, but the ad campaign for Super 8 really got me going, and every time I would see the trailer or a commercial I couldn’t help but think, “if everybody reacts to this the way I am right now, this will be huge”. Obviously, that’s silly, and relatively few among the masses really even know who JJ Abrams is (his other two major movies where franchise installments).

    Also, judging by some of the comments on here, I worry a little bit about the word-of-mouth effect. It’s the kind of movie that makes you fall in love with when it catches you off-guard, but it’s also the kind of movie that, if you love it, you’ll just gush about it to your friends who are the same age and liked the same movies as you growing up. And then, apparently, it can be disappointing in the face of massive critical adoration and word-of-mouth.

    Ultimately, all I can really say with certainty is that I really enjoyed the movie, might see it again, and hope many others enjoy it, too.

    • jdbaird

      Another misunderstood alien with a cast of hysterical thirteen year old’s.

  • Feather

    I agree totally with the comments about emotions feeling forced. The movie felt manipulative and too much like “Goonies” and “Stand by Me” with the over talking. It was just a little TOO much. Okay movie, not great.

    • DGH

      Goonies and Stand by Me I’m sold!!!!!!

  • Latilleon

    Cloverfield had a better marketing campaign. Battle:LA had a better marketing campaign. No one really knew what Super 8 was. JJ Abhrams does not sell tickets at this point as a director. I think most non-geek people know who he is. Most of his ventures have been mild successes and his big winners, Star Trek and LOST were more due to other people and their concepts (give him his due with Star Trek, but he wasn’t really re-inventing the wheel, he was cleaning decades of muck off of the wheel).

    Another thing about the Battle: LA marketing… People knew exactly what they were getting with Battle: LA. You don’t know what’s happening with Super 8 until you go see it. The biggest mistake made with Super 8 is releasing it at this part of the summer in the biggest tentpole summer since 2007. This would have been perfect last year or in April or September. There are so many big movies this year that it will not get the slow build a movie like this should get. If it isn’t a $100 million movie, it will be huge on DVD and cable.

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