On January 18, 2008, the highly anticipated Cloverfield finally hit theaters and audiences scrambled to find out if all of the hidden clues, all of the digging, and all of the marketing gimmicks would be worth it. The jury was mixed at the time, though the film’s reputation has improved over the last decade. That marketing campaign, which you might even remember more than you remember the film itself, was such a defining part of the Cloverfield experience that it was hard to separate the two.
Ten years on, we can look back at Cloverfield and its marketing blitz as a precursor to the way we consume pop culture today. J.J. Abrams’ desire to make a mystery box out of every piece of content he created surely influenced the way we engage with today’s Marvel movies and the way we dissect every frame of the latest Star Wars trailer in YouTube videos. The film is no longer enough on its own. It’s merely one piece of a larger puzzle. For better or worse, that’s the legacy that Cloverfield left behind.
Before even talking about the film itself, we have to go back to February 2007 when Paramount Pictures secretly greenlit the film. The team of upstarts included Abrams, director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, War for the Planet of the Apes), and writer Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods, The Martian). A movie in 2018 involving that trio would be considered a no-brainer, but back then it was surely Abrams’ reputation and his reputation alone that got the film moving.
Abrams said he got the idea for the monster at the heart of the film during a visit to Japan.
“We saw all these Godzilla toys, and I thought, we need our own American monster, and not like King Kong. I love King Kong. King Kong is adorable. And Godzilla is a charming monster. We love Godzilla. But I wanted something that was just insane and intense.”
In a move that still seems amazing that a movie studio would go for it (and somehow even less possible here in 2018), Paramount released a teaser trailer for the film in July 2017 with no title card, only a release date. All we knew was that something attacks New York City and the Statue of Liberty gets her head knocked clean off.
That was enough to get movie nerds working overtime online. It was all the more fascinating that Abrams and Paramount doubled-down on the secrecy, keeping the film’s production a secret and the marketing to a minimum.
One assumed, this strategy would either succeed like it had with The Blair Witch Project, or it would fail to deliver like with Snakes on a Plane. Obsessive movie fans poured over what little information they were given, which led to some hilarious theories.
A misinterpretation of the line “It’s alive” as “It’s a lion” led to a long-running theory that it was going to be a Voltron movie. Others dissected the 1-18-08 release date as if it was the clue to unraveling the mystery and not, you know, the release date. Fans realized that websites for the fictional drink Slusho! and fictional company Tagruato were related to the film and that drove theories even further from the truth.
Coming off the success of the TV show Lost, Abrams had learned that if you give pop culture obsessives a little bit of information and leave them to fill in the blanks, they’ll gladly do it. Of course, as Lost proved, if you can’t eventually provide the answers (or never actually intended to in the first place), you’re left with a lot of angry viewers.
Like Lost, Cloverfield bit off more than it could chew in terms of mysterious hype. By the time it arrived in theaters and we learned that it was, basically, a found-footage Godzilla movie, there was just no way it was going to live up to the exciting possibilities that people had created in their heads.
Not that Cloverfield is bad. Personally, despite being one of those online obsessives, I enjoyed it for what it was. We’ve since gotten used to “city-wide smash’em’ups” in our blockbuster cinema, but at the time it was a refreshing take on the monster movie. People who just want to see things get smashed and people get shmushed get what they want and people who want to find deeper details (like the satellite crashing into the water) get that as well.
Some members of the then-unknown cast have gone on to become rather well-known (Lizzy Caplan, T.J. Miller, Jessica Lucas). And the aforementioned team behind the film are all pretty much at blank-check status in their professions.
Did the viral campaign and secrecy pay off? On one hand, Cloverfield banked $170.8 million at the box office against a $25 million budget, which is a win by any Hollywood standard. You could make a good case that this monster movie with an unknown cast wouldn’t have done nearly as well without the mysterious marketing around it. It also kicked off the second wave of found footage movies in Hollywood, The “Big Budget” Found Footage Movie (Chronicle, Quarantine, The Bay).
On the flip side, you could argue that it also attracted a huge audience that left disappointed, either because the film didn’t live up the hype or because it didn’t fulfill the mystery that people had solved inside their heads. It makes you wonder if campaigns like this are always doomed in some way because what we see on the screen will almost never match what we can imagine, and to ask us to solve the riddle is always going to backfire.
Still, there was a lot of immediate talk of a sequel but it languished in some form of development hell for years. After a while, everyone pretty much gave up on the idea. That is, until audiences found out about 10 Cloverfield Lane. Adapted from an original script unrelated to the Cloverfield mythology, it was reworked and filmed under a fake name to once again remain mysterious.
Eventually, the name of the film was revealed just two months before it was set to hit theaters in March 2016. As for how it ties into the original, well, without spoiling anything, it’s a bit up in the air, which once again left the door open for disappointment. Still, the film was a solid performer, grossing $110.2 million worldwide against a $15 million budget.
A third film in the “Cloverfield-iverse,” formerly known as God Particle but since renamed Untitled Cloverfield Sequel, has been pushed back multiple times but is currently set to be released in April 2018. Interestingly, there is very little in the way of secrecy this time, though reports suggest that the original plot of the film has been scrapped for a new story (hence the title change). Whether or not it ties into the previous films or simply acts as a continuation of Abrams’ monster mystery movie anthology remains to be seen.
So what has Hollywood learned from Cloverfield? Clearly, it learned that if you give dedicated fans a little bit of information, they will run wild with it. They will dissect teasers to absurd degrees. They will create theories based on the most inconsequential pieces of information. They will debate the merits of milliseconds that ultimately may not matter in the least. They will infer significance from posters, even though they are often created by people unrelated to the film.
The less you give them, the more fans will obsess. And Hollywood loves that.
On the flip side, Hollywood also seems to have learned that secrecy and mystery only really work if you can back it up. There’s too much money tied up in cinematic universes to create unwarranted hype when justified hype works just fine. A mysterious teaser that leaves too much open to interpretation leads to disappointment with some, so that even when you drop a great reveal, it’s not the thing people talked themselves into.
For audiences that discovered the film after the theatrical release, and don’t have memories of the marketing campaign to mark it against, it seems to hold up more often than not. Because in the end, it comes down to whether or not you’re entertaining us, not how you’re selling to us.