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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Its pedigree could hardly be stronger -- producer Steven Spielberg and sci-fi master J.J. Abrams.
But "Super 8" arrives in North American movie theaters on Friday shrouded in such secrecy that it may prove a hard sell in a summer bursting with familiar superheroes and sequels.
The plot centers on a group of kids in a small Ohio town who spend the summer of 1979 making a home movie using the titular 8mm film format that was popular back then. They witness a train crash, which triggers a series of inexplicable events and disappearances.
Abrams, 44, wrote and directed the film, while Spielberg helped him shape the story. But with no big stars and a trailer that does not show the sci-fi alien creature around whom the film revolves, the buzz for the $50 million picture has hardly been deafening.
Yet keeping that mystery element intact is exactly what Abrams wanted, much to the dismay of studio executives at Paramount Pictures.
"One of the fights we've had about selling the movie is how much do we tell? What do we show?" Abrams told Reuters. "There's a feeling of 'Well, if they don't know it, then you gotta show them everything so they understand it before they see it.'
"My feeling is that if you show them everything, they won't want to go see it, so there's a battle internally," he said.
Abrams -- who reinvigorated Paramount's dormant "Star Trek" and "Mission: Impossible" franchises, and co-created the TV hit "Lost" -- appears to have had the final say.
Industry website Deadline Hollywood called the "Super 8" marketing campaign a "bold gamble" given the pressure on Hollywood studios to deliver the biggest possible audiences on opening weekend.
Deadline Hollywood reported this week that audience awareness of the film is lagging in key categories behind Warner Bros. upcoming comic book movie "Green Lantern" and Disney/Pixar's "Cars 2" animated sequel"
Paramount, as studios often do, is playing down opening-weekend expectations. The Hollywood Reporter said on Monday that the studio hopes it will earn $25 million to $30 million during its first three days of release across the United States and Canada.
That compares to a $56 million opening last weekend for 20th Century Fox's "X-Men: First Class" and more than $90 million for Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" in May.
Abrams is understandably a little nervous. "Coming out in the summer without a name star, without any known franchise, not being a sequel or a comic book, it's scary," he said.
"Studios sell hard the 'Transformers,' the 'Pirates' and anything that is built on something that is pre-existing...I know its certainly easier to sell a movie like 'Star Trek' than 'Super 8,'" he added.
Early reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, with critics noting the movie's throw-back feel to old Spielberg films like "E.T" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind".
The Hollywood Reporter called it "an engaging return trip to Steven Spielberg's youth world of wonder." But New York magazine said "Super 8" was a "Steven Spielberg homage/rip-off produced by Spielberg himself."
Abrams, who has known Spielberg for more than 25 years, said he set out to direct a film that was based on his own experiences making movies as a child and which "certainly was intended as an original piece."
"'Super 8' was never conceived as a laundry list of movies to borrow from. It was never intended to be a rip-off of any kind," he said. "Steven didn't work on this as an homage to himself. It's a sister film to those movies."
But he conceded that he was deeply influenced by Spielberg's early works.
"There was a love of those kids, the love of that era, certain elements like kids on BMX bikes in a small town and other-worldly elements.
"This movie is a very intentional throwback and it's meant to make you feel something," said Abrams.
Editing by Jill Serjeant and Dean Goodman