There was nothing like the mysterious marketing of Cloverfield. There may never be anything like it again.
It’s Summer 2007. You’re getting comfortable in a crowded movie theater, ready for the midnight showing of Michael Bay’s Transformers. But first, a slew of trailers for movies you’re already familiar with and excited for. Then something new, something different. A surprise trailer plays, featuring a happening house party in a New York apartment. The party is suddenly disrupted when the building quakes, the power goes out and things go wild. Soon after, the trailer ends with the head of the Statue of Liberty smashing down into a crowded, panicked street. Some sort of monster is heading to New York City and it means business. The trailer ends. No title. Just a release date. The audience releases a hushed Ooooh.
And with that, J.J. Abrams changed the movie marketing game forever.
When that first Cloverfield trailer made a splash, it made quite a splash. More people were talking about the shocking teaser than the film it played before. So began months of speculation and feverous anticipation for the sure-to-be amazing monster film. Many assumed the film was an adaptation, perhaps of Voltron or maybe a new Godzilla film. People dug into message boards, trying to connect the dots anyway they could. Of course J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves were staying mum. People ate it up. In the end, the film pleased most who saw it and is still well-regarded as an original, scary, fun monster movie. Still, it’s the marketing of Cloverfield that will forever be remembered and perhaps never duplicated.
One of the many reasons its successful marketing approach can never be copied is because nothing can be as new as this was. It was unheard of for a film to be made completely in the dark, without set visits and teaser posters and casting announcements. Even if a film did pull it off, it wouldn’t have the same punch as Cloverfield simply because it wouldn’t be the first to do it. In an industry that lacks truly novel ideas, Cloverfield really was the first.
Another reason the advertising brilliance of Cloverfield can’t be duplicated is because studios don’t want to make things behind the veil of secrecy. Studios are afraid to use the so-called “mystery box” approach for fear of it backfiring. No one knows this better than J.J. Abrams himself. Throughout his career, he has used this technique, keeping plot details under lock and key until the film debuts. This served him very well for Cloverfield and decently for Lost (until the last fews seasons, of course) but in later years audiences have grown a bit peeved at the obscurity surrounding his productions. Star Trek Into Darkness is a perfect example of this. From the moment Benedict Cumberbatch was cast in the sci-fi sequel, many fans had pegged him as playing the iconic Star Trek villain Khan. Abrams denied it. Cumberbatch denied it. The studio denied. Everyone on Earth denied what ended up being the truth.
In the end, the reveal was a yawn and the insistence on keeping this plot twist a secret actually ticked some people off. The mystery box approach completely falls apart if the mystery inside isn’t that exciting. This locked down approach to advertising can also lead to wild speculation and inflated expectations. When the secrets revealed don’t add up against what fans have imagined it can leave a bad taste in audiences’ mouths. Studios fear viewers leaving the theater saying “Oh, that’s it?” As fun as the mystery box is, it’s also dangerous.
The biggest reason the enigmatic marketing push may be gone forever is because studios crave support. Studios want anticipation from fans on day one of production. They need people tweeting and Facebooking and YouTubing about blockbusters the moment they hit the ground. Buzz needs to be at fever pitch when that first trailer finally does hit. It’s all well and good to take a chance on marketing for a small film that costs around $50 million or less. The truth is that movies in that budget range are rarely made anymore. Movies like Cloverfield are usually big, too big to fail. They need to have a fanbase that is raring to go months and even years in advance. If studios are always spending more money on their films, they want excitement and they want it long, long in advance. That sort of hubbub comes when you open up the lid and let people peek inside. Obviously, the mystery box doesn’t allow that and therefore, it’s not the favored approach for most studios.
Even if a film did get the lockdown mystery box treatment like Cloverfield did, it could come off as a copycat. The truth is that J.J. Abrams and his team nailed it. From the first trailer to the poster to the film itself, Cloverfield didn’t make a misstep. If another movie came along attempting the same thing, people would write it off as a rip-off. The film and its marketing was a certain place and time and won’t be replicated soon. Even as 10 Cloverfield Lane makes its way to theaters, its marketing doesn’t pack the same punch as its predecessor. That’s not the fault of the film, that’s a testament to the power and genius of the first film’s advertising stroke of genius. Cloverfield made the mystery box and will always own it.