The lights dim, just a little bit, in that cavernous, air-conditioned hall. This is my favorite part. There’s so much promise and intrigue. It’s impossible to feel let down. That familiar lime-green image flickers to life, letting the audience know that the following preview has been approved by the Motion Picture Association of America for all audiences, and I settle in for what might be the best 10 minute stretch of the next couple hours.
The girlfriend and I went to see Super 8 last night. She loves sci-fi movies and couldn’t have been more excited about it. I wasn’t particularly interested for some reason, but I always get excited for the previews. These early summer blockbusters are always great, because they’ll have at least half a dozen trailers before the main attraction starts. As each 2-3 minute trailer flicks by, girlfriend and I turn to each other, as if on cue, and say “Well, don’t need to see that one.” It’s not that trailers were for movies in genres we didn’t like or that the movies themselves looked bad or boring, in fact I probably would have seen most of them, it’s that literally five of the six trailers left absolutely no need to see the movie. They showed you the whole damn thing.
Mystique is one of the seven triggers of fascination, according to Sally Hogshead. Mystique is rooted in unfulfillment, provoking our imagination, hinting at the possibilities, whetting our appetite, and inviting us closer while eluding our grasp. In her book Fascinate, she describes mystique as
the most nuanced, and perhaps the most difficult [of the 7 triggers] to achieve. Mystique invites others closer, without giving them what they seek. A delicate balance to be sure, but successfully achieved, it’s fascination’s exemplar. Mystique can add anticipation and curiosity to any relationship, from new business pitches to social invitations, by motivating others to return for more.
There are four ways to create mystique: spark curiosity, withhold information, build mythology or limit access.
If we return to the world of movie trailers, we can easily see how these four techniques can work together to fascinate. Let’s look at the third highest grossing film of all time, which has so far made over $1.25 Billion: The Dark Knight. The sequel to the critically acclaimed and financially successful Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan began building mystique before the movie was even in production. The mythology was already built-in from the success, and the feel, of the first movie. But the other elements were skillfully used to maximize the momentum they had going. The plot was kept under tight wraps: even though speculation was rampant, nobody really had any idea what the story would about until the few weeks leading up to the release, right when the advertising onslaught began. Nearly all information about the movie was withheld.
But at the same time, Nolan and Co. kept sparking our curiosity. Like a methadone clinic, he’d dole out just enough to keep us interested. A production still, or news of a new cast member, doled out every couple of weeks, kept people wondering what was up. [It worked so well, he's doing it again for the next installment (see picture above).] Even though we didn’t know anything, the movie was still rattling around in our collective minds. Check out the first trailer they released: Dark Knight Trailer #1. It reveals nothing, but it sure as hell sparks curiosity. Then, a few months later, the second trailer is released. This time? We catch our first glimpse of the mysterious villian, The Joker. What do we learn? Nothing! We know even less now! We’re left wondering who this mysterious lunatic is and what he wants. Dark Knight Trailer #2.
Then, the movie finally comes out. In IMAX. Except, guess what? IMAX shows are sold out for the first month. I remember trying to go to a 10 o’clock show on a Thursday morning the second week it was out. Sold Out. WTF? The unintentionally limited access, due to the limited number of IMAX screens, created even more fascination.
So, since the archetype of how to perfectly promote a summer movie was just recently produced, surely everyone’s jumping on the mystique bandwagon, right? Well, judging by five of the six trailers I saw last night, clearly the answer is no. What gives? Is Hollywood dumb? I don’t know. As an industry, Hollywood is pretty damn savvy; in the face of unprecedented piracy, they’re making more money than ever. And, at least one segment of Hollywood has it nailed. Horror, where mystique, or at least surprise, is everything, is Hollywood’s most consistently profitable genre. Watch any horror trailer you want: they never step on the reveal.
But, a surprising number of films still lose money. How many of those films would come out ahead if they followed Nolan and built a little mystique instead of producing a full monty trailer?
Building mystique is obviously not limited to the world of movies. Any product or brand, from Coca Cola and Jagermeister to Louis Vuitton and Ferrari can benefit from cultivating a certain amount of mystique. People themselves can benefit tremendously from infusing a little mystique into their image. Hell, a no-name junior Senator from Illinois masterfully leveraged his personal mystique to make himself the leader of the free world. How are you going to use it?
Mystique is perhaps the most difficult of the seven triggers of fascination to wield, but also produces the most powerful results. There are four ways to create mystique: spark curiosity, withhold information, build mythology, and limit access. The more of these four techniques you can combine, the more effective the mystique, and the deeper the fascination. If you can fascinate people, you can do anything, whether it’s making one of the highest grossing films of all time, building a 100-year-old staple of worldwide cultures, or becoming the President of the United States.