the pitfall of vanity projects

I used to really like J.J. Abrams. I still mostly do.

Not so much for Felicity, but Alias was pretty cool (granted, the pilot was completely a network version of Buffy but Jennifer Garner really made it something of its own and it was fun). Alias got far too complicated, and I faulted J.J. Abrams for that, but generally I considered it a good show.

Lost I loved the first season and then my affection waned progressively each season until, in the end when people were talking about it being one of the best shows on tv ever, I balked. It was way too complicated and I didn’t care about the characters at all, which is a problem for a character driven show. But J.J. will say that Lost was mostly Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse and he’s right so I don’t hold too much of that against him.

The good thing about Lost and also Fringe, for the sake of this blog, is that it reveals J.J.’s ability to delegate, which is what makes him such a good producer. He recognizes a good idea, then hands it to talented people who run with it. It’s what, currently, makes him a more powerful producer than Joss Whedon but that’s another blog.

And I thought Mission: Impossible III was the best directed of the franchise, hands down.

Star Trek‘s brilliance speaks for itself.

Super 8 Mock Poster

Then Super 8 comes along and Kel and I started talking about it, and the conversation became interesting enough to turn into this blog entry.

Let me clarify first, that I haven’t actually seen Super 8.  Kel did.  These are our indistinguishable opinions. Several, in fact.

First of all, I think it’s a movie out of time. Audiences move through the type of movies they’re attracted to; from westerns to musicals to comic book movies, different films have their place in time regardless of the time they take place in (if that makes sense). Even from the very first trailer, Super 8 didn’t feel like a movie that resonated with a modern audience to me. It felt nostalgic, but not in a compelling way; in a watching someone else’s home movies kind of way. And the only way you can get away with an out of time movie is if it’s really, brilliantly, good.

Studio’s greenlight projects like that because they’re betting not on the movie so much as the talent. It’s how vanity projects get made; because someone has enough power to make whatever they want regardless of the audience’s appetite for it.

The question then becomes, is that person’s power based on talent or hype. In J.J.’s case I think it’s a little of both. Because he’s obviously talented. He’s a good writer and a good director and a dynamic producer. He seems like a safe bet because he’s talented and he has a well recognized and respected name. But he’s not really that established because this is really only the third movie he’s directed and the first one he’s written. Does he really have the substance to support a vanity project like this?

Christopher Nolan had directed twice as many films before Inception. Steven Spielberg had directed four times as many before Jurassic Park. I just don’t think J.J. Abram’s has proven himself enough to market a film on the strength of his name alone. even with him and Steven Spielberg, it’s not enough.

And I think it’s a sign that he’s bought into his own hype if he thinks he can.

I also have to take issue with the marketing campaign (this is the same marketing team that took missteps in marketing Thor). Even if J.J. Abrams doesn’t have what it takes to support a vanity project like this, he probably made a pretty good movie. But the marketing completely bought into his “magic box” philosophy (whether by their own choice or his insistence, I don’t know). Their refusal to reveal anything about the story or the larger concept of the film left them with nothing to sell but J.J.’s name. I’m not wrong that it’s not enough because it only opened to $36 million.
And J.J. doesn’t deal in a genre that often has extended box office life.

Now, if he wants to expand his genre then that’s totally fair. But you have to market the film on its own merit and let people be surprised that J.J. can do a nostalgic, adventure/character film so well.

If, indeed he did. Remember, I haven’t seen it.

June 14, 2011 | Commentary , , , , , | this post contains affiliate links

2 responses to “the pitfall of vanity projects

  1. Lori

    “It’s what, currently, makes him a more powerful producer than Joss Whedon but that’s another blog.”

    I’m ready.