Why J.J. Abrams Gets Away With Mystery

By  · Published on May 6th, 2010

If you ever choose to drive out to Los Angeles from Texas via the 10 freeway, you’ll notice some of the best advertising that man has ever put on earth. Jutting out against an endless sky, billboards proclaim THE THING? WHAT IS IT? and shout with loud colors and phrases about the MYSTERY OF THE DESERT. The first sign is funny, the second sign is intriguing, and by the third sign you’ll have a desperate, carnal need to find out what the damned Thing is.

This week, much of the news cycle has been stolen away from Iron Man 2 as J.J. Abrams has slowly unveiled details about a secret project that he’s been working on with Steven Spielberg. The first news was that they were planning on working together, the second was of a Cloverfield-like trailer for a movie called Super 8, and the third had me dying to know what the director has up his sleeve and when we’ll get a chance to see it.

There is, of course, a showman quality to how all of this information was leaked – especially considering that we still know almost nothing about the project itself. Even the trailer doesn’t give much beyond a vague tie to Area 51 (the original Mystery of the Desert) and an unseen force on a derailed train.

This just isn’t how film marketing is done these days.

That fact is part of the formula for success that Abrams has when drawing attention to a project. I’d argue that there are two key factors in why he’s able to get away with an advertising scheme that very few even dare to attempt.

We Already Know Everything

Abrams and his goals seem odd in the context of the media-soaked world that we wade through everyday. Not only is every studio and independent filmmaker looking for a downgraded 14 minutes of internet acknowledgment, but every news outlet seems content to reveal every single detail about a film before a trailer is even cut. We know five actors who might have gotten the lead role two years before the film will ever arrive in theaters. We have enough images to create a flipbook version of the film weeks before it comes out. By the fifth trailer release, we’ve seen close to 20% of a movie.

Thus, Abrams works as an antidote to all of that knowledge.

There’s a spark that gets ignited, a natural draw to something we’re told we should want but can’t have. If everyone else is showing us the trap door behind the mirrored cage, Abrams is the magician who politely refuses to even talk about his magic tricks.

Not that there’s anything new about publicity stunts. It’s something that P.T. Barnum perfected two hundred years ago. It’s what drove fans to clamor about what The Matrix was. It’s certainly a tool that storytelling has used to keep minds captive since the art form was born (and shouldn’t great storytelling elements make their way into advertising?). Still, it’s fascinating and a bit ironic that what used to be widespread is sought out like a sauna in wintertime because the face of news reporting has changed so drastically in the past two decades. It’s also interesting that Abrams has converted Barnum’s (and The Thing’s) style of yelling loudly without giving any details into saying hardly anything at all and getting a similar result.

I doubt that we’ve reached a saturation point. Few will learn from Abrams and the brave PR departments he gets to go along with his schemes, but his marketing style works because no one else is doing it.

A Proven Track Record

None of what I just said would matter if Abrams was an unknown or hadn’t already thrilled audiences.

Last year, an independent film called Warning!!! Pedophile Released attempted to draw attention to its production by sending out emails warning of a “Pedophile Caught in Movie Theaters.” Despite getting high marks, I’d be willing to bet you’ve never heard of it.

That’s definitely not a knock against the film. It’s also not necessarily a knock against the marketing of the film because it was certainly attention-grabbing. The point is that your name has to be the draw when you refuse to speak about what you’re working on.

Ironically, Abrams also owes consistent media attention to his public persona because of the new media paradigm.

With that spotlight already following him around for his work on Star Trek, “Lost,” and several other high profile projects, Abrams is completely free to say nothing and still have news stories written about him. It’s partially because the news cycle is so hungry for news that Abrams can be written about heavily even when he refuses to comment.

However, if he hadn’t delivered on those projects, people would probably be more offended than intrigued.

More directly, we want to see what else the man has to offer. He’s at a point in his career where people can get excited to see his name attached to a project even if they know nothing about it. It also helps that he deals in mysteries in his storytelling. It would still work for a sought-after talent in any genre, but mystery has a way of building on other mysteries, and Abrams has done well to weave that sense of wonderment through the advertising and directly into the project itself – whatever he might be working on.

What is The Thing?

We’re driving through the desert, and we see a billboard featuring a director’s name and the title of a movie. What does it take to have those two phrases alone make you want to pull off the road?

Okay. So in a blizzard of media, a desert is probably the worst analogy possible, but imagine there’s a huge dust storm or something, and we’re halfway there.

The point is that J.J. Abrams gets away with mystery because we are desperate for it and because he’s delivered in the past. It’s a one-two punch that keeps us thirsty yet satiated by every small drop of news.

If you’re ever driving between Tucson and El Paso, be sure to keep an eye on the billboards with the squiggly font asking you rhetorically what the Thing is. I promise you that it will bore a hole into your brain like the lyrics of that song you hate that’s so catchy. It will wrap itself around your steering wheel, pulling you off the road as you rationalize that you need gas anyway.

However, if you’re not planning on heading West (or back East from California) any time soon, and you’re dying to know what it is, you’ll have to ask someone else.

I’ve never seen it.

Do a Google search or something. I’m sure you’ll find it somewhere out there.

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