If you are of a certain age, you definitely remember seeing this for the first time:
Even if you remember literally nothing else about the movie Cloverfield itself, released around this time fifteen years ago, you still remember the firestorm of speculation that followed this teaser trailer for what looked like a found footage disaster movie from the creative team behind the TV show Felicity. What caused that massive explosion that decapitated the Statue of Liberty? We don’t know. Is it something supernatural or a breakout of World War III? We don’t know. But because the teaser was released in that crucial window of the Web 2.0 era when social media was starting to take hold of popular culture but hadn’t yet totally monopolized the entire internet, that fire of speculation had kindling that could sustain and feed and grow it to a scale unattainable to previous movies relying solely on word-of-mouth to be successful.
Even if you weren’t all that interested in the teaser at first, its omnipresence on the message boards and Facebook posts ensured that FOMO would kick in and you’d feel a “need” to weigh in on it somehow, even if it was just to say you think this is all smoke-and-mirrors and it probably won’t even end up all that good, anyway. Because the folks at Bad Robot, whether they knew it at the time or not, benefitted either way. Positive social media buzz is ideal, but negative social media buzz isn’t far behind. The only truly undesirable result is no social media buzz.
It’s why authors encourage readers to leave a Goodreads review even if they dislike the book. It’s why the studios that provide us at Awards Radar with review screeners don’t mind all that much if we publish a negative review, as long as we publish something about the film. The attention, calculated now by online algorithms, is what actually matters, as evidenced by Cloverfield ending up grossing over five times its modest production budget on the back of that buzz. The irony is the movie riding this wave was… honestly, not entirely deserving of such outsized attention in either direction. Cloverfield is decent-ish. It’s an engaging-enough kaiju thriller (yeah, most peoples’ first guess that it was a giant monster was the correct one), with impressive ballistic and pyrotechnic effects. However, it still suffers the same “wait, he’s still filming?” strain on credulity that hobbles most found footage horror movies. The nihilistic payoff was bold but also meant there was not much else to think about after it was all over.
Of course, as we all know now, it wasn’t “all over” after the credits rolled on Matt Reeves’ breakout hit. They tried to make lightning strike a second time, and the means of doing so were an interesting snapshot of how online marketing had changed in the new decade. Because of the popularity of the Godzilla reboot and Pacific Rim, J.J. Abrams and his team assumed that a direct Cloverfield sequel would be too-little-too-late in a by-then kaiju-saturated Hollywood. So they pulled a Die Hard 2 and rewrote a standalone bottle thriller into a sort of “spiritual sequel” to the original viral hit; jettisoning a found footage gimmick in favor of adopting a third-person perspective, showing absolutely no giant alien monsters in the marketing, and making no overtures in any way other than its title to the first movie.
Amazingly, despite the eight-year gap, audiences turned out and weren’t all that thrown off by the Cloverfield connection. 10 Cloverfield Lane was a hit, and was, at least in my opinion, an improvement over the original 2008 movie, with more fleshed-out characters, a smarter narrative economy, and working around its budgetary restrictions more effectively. In fact, I’d argue that the final “reveal” linking it to Cloverfield was its biggest weakness, but that’s clearly an irrelevant complaint from a business standpoint. And that can be explained by one word: Marvel. The same year that Cloverfield hit theaters, the first Iron Man hit only a few months later, planting the seeds for what would become one of the highest-grossing media franchises of all time and setting a template that every other media franchise would try to replicate. So by the time 10 Cloverfield Lane was released, audiences were not only used to but practically expected major genre releases to link themselves to some larger continuity. That they also got a strong movie anchored by a terrific Mary Elizabeth Winstead performance was just a nice bonus.
And then they tried again, rewriting another originally standalone space thriller into The Cloverfield Paradox. This time, they decided to make this a Netflix exclusive and not even announce its existence until the night of its streaming debut via a Super Bowl ad:
Only Netflix knows for sure how well their acquisition did for their bottom line, but the reviews and audience reception were… not good this time around. I can’t say they were overly harsh or unfair, either. Aside from Elizabeth Debicki’s terrifying introduction, it’s a tedious mess.
So I sit here now, thinking about the production of an unprecedented direct sequel to Cloverfield on the fifteenth anniversary of the original installment’s release, produced by a man who would become an entertainment industry titan and one of the most pernicious influences on modern storytelling, and I find myself thinking about it almost entirely as a museum of movie marketing over the past decade-and-a-half. Reeves himself reflected on this as well in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, claiming:
“The thing about Cloverfield from the beginning was it was always so surprising the way it came together, and I hope that it continues to be surprising. Weirdly, that’s actually one of the hallmarks of it as well. It’s the surprise of something coming out of left field, which is harder and harder now. It’s probably impossible to do today, but at the time, it was a unique idea that this movie that no one had ever heard of and had no title would suddenly have a trailer on Transformers on 4th of July weekend. I just don’t know that it could be done anymore.”
I certainly agree with him that a movie marketed exactly like Cloverfield nowadays couldn’t be a success in the way that Cloverfield was during the final year of George W. Bush’s presidency, but I don’t agree with him that it’s literally impossible to surprise audiences or build up pre-release hype on a mystery premise. Just look at Skinamarink, a literal home movie with a microscopic budget released in a shocking number of theaters due entirely to the viral buzz it build up on TikTok from a YouTuber who produced cheap, short avant-garde videos based on people describing their nightmares to him. Personally, I think studio executives and filmmakers sorely overestimate how many people actually pay attention to internet discourse these days. Far from the exciting wild west of blogs and message boards and independent movie sites, the web is now a monopolized hellscape of paywalled articles and social media monoliths controlled by out-of-touch egomaniacal billionaires projecting the opinions of a loud minority of terminally-online dudes on the rest of the non-terminally-online population. Changing a season finale twist because a fraction of a fraction of your viewers “figured it out” ahead of time on Reddit and tacking on a pointless “showdown” between two popular characters in response to memes that fans weren’t actually taking seriously are dumb overreactions to what goes on in these vast joyless digital deserts most normal people try not paying attention to, anymore. If you can achieve any kind of organic internet viral pre-release buzz for your standalone, not-franchise-dependent movie in this day and age, it’s because you made something that sparks genuine curiosity and accidentally turned it into a viral sensation as Skinamarink did. Ironically, by tightening corporate control over the internet, corporations have lost control of generating, or even accurately gauging, actual audience interest.
A modestly-budgeted found footage thriller, that wasn’t even all that great on its own, demonstrated the power of the internet as an invaluable marketing tool. How Hollywood responded to that demonstration, and how the movie itself awkwardly grew into a franchise attempting to replicate that success in a continuously changing digital ecosystem, reveals a lot about the internet’s evolving relationship with the industry.