How the Cloverfield series has come to represent Hollywood’s attitudes towards the mid-budget genre movie.
Note: this article originally appeared on Set the Tape.
You all know the tale by now. July 3rd 2007, the opening day of Michael Bay’s hotly anticipated live-action Transformers adaptation. Cinemagoers across America were treated to a teaser trailer for a mysterious movie that ended with the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty and the date “01-18-08.” No title, no plot, just the name “J.J. Abrams” right at the height of Lost’s popularity and soon after his turn in the director’s chair of Mission: Impossible III. That movie would, months later, reveal itself to be a found-footage monster movie called Cloverfield, accompanied by a smorgasbord of viral marketing that told a whole other story outside of the film itself, and its eventual release caused it to become one of the most-talked-about and divisive touchstones in 2000s Film even to this day.
Look, I know you’re all tired of hearing about Cloverfield’s marketing campaign by now, especially since many detractors of the film and its pseudo-sequels like to try claim that they’re nothing special outside of their genius marketing gimmicks… but have you watched the original Cloverfield recently? (If you’re reading this in the UK, you can go and do that right now since it was just added to Netflix; I’ll wait.) It’s a weird film, isn’t it? I don’t mean “weird” in the sense of David Lynch or what have you, more “weird” in the fact that it’s an arthouse horror movie dressed up in the skin of a crowdpleasing monster movie. Its scope is incredibly tiny and rigid, it has basically nothing to do with the viral marketing surrounding it, the characters are all intentionally minimally-drawn and (at least) mildly annoying, and the horror comes not from jump scares or terrifying monster designs but from director Matt Reeves’ masterful control over this suffocating feeling of deliberate helplessness – of being stuck right in the middle of an attack, playing upon explicit post-9/11 anxieties and paranoia, with no control, no exit, and the slowly sinking realisation that you are fucked.
Not exactly the stuff of blockbusting, record-breaking, zeitgeist-capturing affairs when put like that, is it? General audiences at the time would even agree with that reading given that, after said record-breaking opening weekend, the film plummeted 70% in its second and closed domestically having only just missed out on doubling its opening weekend. Without that genius marketing campaign, as much as I hate to admit it, it is highly doubtful that anybody would have taken a chance on Cloverfield whilst it was in cinemas. Yet, Paramount and J.J. Abrams forcibly turned this unassuming and difficult low-budget January release with no stars and no big-name filmmakers into a must-see hype-filled blockbuster solely on the back of pure marketing. They made Cloverfield an Event, much like how the makers of The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield’s direct antecedent, turned their otherwise niche arthouse horror into an Event through clever Internet-based marketing. It’s the kind of success story that arguably could only have occurred in the late-2000s, just prior to the global recession when moviegoers had the kind of spare cash on hand to attend all kinds of flicks and average ticket prices were more accommodating than they are nowadays – somewhat more so in the UK than in America, but the difference over the years is still there and still notable.
And if you need proof of that, consider 8 years later once 10 Cloverfield Lane was announced. Despite Abrams having talked on and off about doing one for years, Cloverfield had yet to receive any kind of sequel or continuation, leaving that Event alone enough to gain some nostalgic cache in its audience. And then, suddenly, on January 15th 2016, in front of Michael Bay’s 13 Hours, a trailer for Lane showed up out of nowhere, with no prior indication that any progress had been made in the realm of a Cloverfield sequel, and with the bombshell that it was only 2 months away. A month later, the same viral marketing that powered the original Cloverfield started up again whilst that trailer circulated ever wider. Once again, a low-budget horror-thriller, with a super-miniscule cast of character actors that would never be given the chance to top-line a real blockbuster, was an Event movie thanks to the Cloverfield association and canny marketing…
10 Cloverfield Lane opened to just over half the amount of the original Cloverfield, even after Paramount blew $1 million on a prime Super Bowl spot (that also kind of gave the game away so boo in that respect). And whilst it may have displayed better domestic legs than the original did, almost tripling that opening weekend by the end of its run, and on a smaller budget at that, its underperformance overseas meant that it closed with $60 million less than its predecessor. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Lane should be considered in any way a failure, I’m not about to turn into a Hollywood executive incensed by it only making a lot of money instead of ALL OF THE MONEY, but it does stand as a curious contrast to how everybody involved managed to successfully turn Cloverfield into an Event whilst Lane didn’t perform too much better than September dumping-ground fare like No Good Deed. And all with Lane being a far more direct and easier film than Cloverfield ever was.
Perhaps that’s why, 2 years on, Paramount sent The Cloverfield Paradox straight-to-Netflix. If you want to believe Abrams’ take on things, the arrangement simply came about because he and Paramount thought the surprise out-of-nowhere Netflix release would be “fun.” It feeds into the escalating de-escalation act that these films have been taking on their marketing tactics, after all. Cloverfield was stretched out over half a year, with the film not even having been finished when that trailer dropped (it was made in pre-production), Lane compressed itself into 2 months and also wasn’t even a Cloverfield film officially until days before that trailer was released, and, since we now know that Cloverfield movies are largely going to be sci-fi-thrillers produced by Bad Robot, what better way to surprise those of us who already knew that the film formerly known as God Particle would be entry #3 in this loosely-connected franchise than formally announcing its existence during the Super Bowl and releasing it less than 3 hours later? In 2008, an Event Movie was willed into existence after an extended and concentrated marketing campaign. In 2018, an Event Movie occurs by simply saying “We made a new entry in that thing you like, here’s where you can see it right now.” Carefully-stoked anticipation vs. instant gratification, and the latter wins in 2018 purely by the increased speed of modern social media discourse.
But I dunno. I may have woken up last Monday morning to the very pleasant shock of there being a new Cloverfield entry to watch that very evening – swiftly followed by a slow deflating sense of disappointment upon actually watching Paradox, a mildly-engaging but extremely stupid mess of a movie – but over the following days, that pleasant shock has turned more towards disconcerting worry. Not coincidentally, that turn coincided with the floodgates opening on the gossip-fuelled but true-sounding reasons as to why Paradox ended up being released the way that it did. Constant release date pushbacks, mid-film rewrites that only then turned God Particle into a semi-direct Cloverfield movie, ballooning budgets, poor test screenings, and, finally, Netflix being willing to pony up $50 million to take it off of the studio’s hands, effectively making it instantly profitable and allowing Paramount the chance to wash their hands of the whole affair. The one word that insiders keep attributing to Paradox’s status prior to the Netflix acquisition? “Unsalvageable.”
I’m assuming you’ve seen Paradox if you’re reading this piece. Maybe you thought it was great, maybe you thought it was garbage, maybe you thought it was an absolute mess, maybe you thought it was really silly when the foosball table started playing of its own accord only for that scene to never come up again. But would you consider it “unsalvageable?” It is, of course, now impossible to say whether or not Paradox would have been profitable had Paramount decided to commit to sending it to theatres – particularly since Paradox is the first film in this series to have a budget over $25 million, and to have both critics and audiences agreeing on the film being a bit of a dud (at time of writing) – but it’s not like studios haven’t thrown their weights behind inevitably-failing duds before. Paradox is no more unsalvageable than Life was last year, and Sony gave that a full theatrical release despite it barely turning a profit when all was said and done.
What the Cloverfield marketing campaigns and release strategies have done, by accident, is parallel the gradual erasure of low-to-mid-budget studio fare from their release slates. Cloverfield existed at the tail-end of a time where studios would go just as all-in on mid-budget genre fare in an attempt to turn them into crossover hits (see: 300, Wanted, amongst others) as they would your Spider-Mans and your Pirates of the Caribbeans, and if they didn’t break big then they could at least make a tidy bit of money and recoup the rest in home media sales. 10 Cloverfield Lane tried to replicate that Event movie on an accelerated timescale but ultimately performed much the same as high quality low-budget thriller fare usually does. And, with Paramount likely having that prior experience rattling around in their heads as they decided what to do with a legitimate turkey, The Cloverfield Paradox is one of the first and biggest-named casualties of the new way to deal with uncertain bets of the kind that make up mid-budget genre fare: dump it on Netflix and call it a day.
Although I am not the kind of person who buys into the myth of The Cinema, this development concerns me as somebody who loves movies and rarely finds the optimum conditions to fully lose myself in them at home, and also as somebody who likes variety in his cinemagoing experiences. Just before 2017 rolled over into the new year, and a few months after an impressive teaser debuted the film to the world, Paramount sold off the non-China international distribution rights to Alex Garland’s upcoming Annihilation to Netflix, because they are worried that the film is “too intellectual” to be a success. This despite a movie star in the lead role (Natalie Portman), a buzzy writer-director whose last feature was a sleeper hit in spite of being decidedly intellectual sci-fi (Alex Garland), and (as of a few days ago) very strong critical buzz. Yet the studio are effectively killing it in America – it’s opening next week, right after Black Panther, and you are forgiven for this being the first you’re hearing about it because marketing has been non-existent – and cutting any potential losses overseas because mid-budget sci-fi is seen as too risky nowadays. Just ignore the fact that Arrival was one of only two Paramount films in 2016 to cross $100 million domestic, and the only one to definitively turn a profit. Meanwhile, Netflix just gobbled up the rights to another mid-budget sci-fi, the Michael Peña/Lizzy Caplan-starring Extinction, this one having been dumped from Universal’s slate for unspecified reasons; whilst, last year, the low-budget action-drama 6 Days was pulled from UK cinema release at the last minute and sent to Netflix.
Paramount are apparently still committed to releasing Overlord, the purported fourth entry in the Cloverfield series, to theatres at some point. Given how things look right now, releasing a mid-budget sci-fi horror to cinemas with an actual marketing push would constitute a genuine surprise. If even the third entry in a series with at least some cultural cache can’t make it to cinemas these days, then what hope is there for the rest of mid-budget sci-fi?