Monday, December 2, 2013

JJ Abrams Admits Khan Mistake for Star Trek Into Darkness

In an interview with MTV (vid below), J.J. Abrams expressed a little bit of regret about how they handled the Khan twist in Star Trek Into Darkness. Abrams once explained his "mystery box" approach to television and movie projects with a goal of trying to contain spoilers to surprise the audience. In the case of Khan, it seems he thinks that may have backfired a bit.
The truth is I think it probably would have been smarter just to say upfront ‘This is who it is.’ It was only trying to preserve the fun of it, and it might have given more time to acclimate and accept that’s what the thing was. The truth is because it was so important to the studio that we not angle this thing for existing fans. If we said it was Khan, it would feel like you’ve really got to know what 'Star Trek' is about to see this movie. That would have been limiting. I can understand their argument to try to keep that quiet, but I do wonder if it would have seemed a little bit less like an attempt at deception if we had just come out with it.
A few thoughts on this:

1) Nice job throwing the Paramount marketing department under the bus. Abrams has always held his cards close the vest, no matter how crappy some of those cards are (back to the mystery box approach). The decision to lie about Khan was clearly an Abrams and company decision and Paramount just went with it because their job was easy - don't mention Khan. But this is a production were something as simple as the name of characters where kept secret and not officially confirmed for a ridiculously long time.

2) If a "spoiler" truly ruins a movie or television story than chances are that story was not very good to begin with. How many movies have you re-watched over and over knowing the entire movie has been "spoiled"? Does knowing what is going to happen diminish the enjoyment? No. Because the story and the characters are good enough to keep you entertained regardless. A good story isn't about the end; it is about the journey to the end and the details that make up that journey. Knowing Frodo saves Middle-Earth doesn't "spoil" The Lord of the Rings because the victory itself isn't why you are watching. That same thing applies to nearly all movies and television shows in existence. Avengers beat Loki...does that spoiler The Avengers? If a story can be ruined by a spoiler, especially something as minor as a character name, then the story probably already has some serious problems. A twist can add enjoyment to a movie (see The 6th Sense) but that movie can still be enjoyed despite knowing it.

3) Audiences need to be able to make informed decisions about the movie's they are going to see. This summer's movie schedule (and next few years’ worth) is brutal. The studios have stacked the summer with way to many "blockbuster" movies and the cost of going to the movies is not cheap, especially for the average family of four (at least $50+). That means a form of movie triage has to be performed were all these choices get sorted into "see it now" in a theater, "see it later" on TV (rent, buy, cable, Netflix, etc.) or "never". In my case it wasn't even a budget consideration but a time decision. I couldn't keep up so a lot of movies that would have been "now" became "later". When Star Trek Into Darkness played all those games with trying to prevent spoilers the result led to audience confusion on whether it was worth their hard earned money and thus made it easier to be triaged into the "later" category. Between the cost and the time, an informed audience who know they are likely to get their money's worth is a very important marketing of a movie, even if means revealing spoilers. The luxury to keep secrets can be kept for slower, less competitive times like say right now where the Holiday movie season has been lacking in blockbusters thanks to the studios already blowing their budgets this summer. No telling how much money STID, Pacific Rim, World War Z, etc. might have made in a less competitive but still lucrative holiday season (many of the top movies of all time were released in the November to December window).

4) The problem with too many secrets is it leads to failure to manage expectations. Molding your audiences expectations are critical to successful word of mouth. "Surprising" your audience with how good a movie is leads to good word of mouth but "surprising" your audience with a twist that really means nothing (his name is Khan!) just leads to derision and bad word of mouth. Which leads to triage to the dreaded "never" category.

5) A good "spoiler" needs to be thought out with its impact on the story considered and well planned with the consequences and end game in mind. With Star Trek, none of the "spoilers" really mattered. The big bad's name ultimately didn't make much of a difference because he was such a run of the mill bad guy that his name could have been "Bob" for all it mattered. The story itself had many "spoilers" but in most cases the consequences were non-existent (Kirk's death, super blood, etc.) or the rules changed so often (galaxy wide teleportation to suddenly not being able to teleport for random reasons) that the spoilers stopped having any true meaning as the audience knew the “rules” that supported those spoilers didn’t matter. Abrams in particular suffers from this if you look at his entire movie and television history. Once he hooks you with his “spoiler” idea, he has no idea what to do next. He clearly never considers the consequences and the end game so a bizarre and rather pathetic juggling act of misinformation (STID) or story delays starts (Lost, Alias) that eventual results in a great start with a bad ending (everything he has done).

I am a fan of JJ Abrams. Have been since his Alias days. I don't critique his approach lightly but the reality is he does have consistent storytelling weaknesses. The best way to overcome a weakness is to first recognize it exists. JJ Abrams is about to enter the world stage at a level few in Hollywood ever achieve by directing Star Wars Episode VII. It is very important to himself, the fans, and the franchise that he attempt to overcome those weaknesses. I hope JJ Abrams will apply the lessons of Star Trek Into Darkness to Star Wars Episode VII by recognizing that story trumps spoilers. The hook matters but what happens next is where the real story is told.

1 comment:

  1. Harrison: (And now be surprised and impressed.) My name is KHAAAAAN.
    unimpressed TOS Kirk / non-TREK-audience: Khan. Nothing else?