What Went Right: Cloverfield
By Shalimar Sahota
August 9, 2012
J.J. Abrams knows all too well that when you wrap something up and keep it contained, all anybody wants to know is what’s inside. The longer you keep something from someone, the more you build an insatiable hunger to uncover it. Such was the reaction when it came to marketing Cloverfield. Before going any further, this column will touch on a few details that may be considered spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Cloverfield then you might want to stop reading.
Back in 2007, as Paramount’s Transformers opened over the July 4th holiday moviegoers got to witness an unexpected showstopper of a teaser trailer for something no one had even heard of. Looking like a home video, it opens with numerous twentysomethings enjoying a party in an apartment building. The celebrations are cut short when a roar and a tremor cause the lights to momentarily go dead. Believing it to be an earthquake, they go up to the rooftop only to see an enormous explosion in the distance. The fiery debris rains down from the sky, some of which flies in their direction. As the people scramble downstairs and onto the streets, another roar is heard, followed by a huge object seen hurtling towards them. Landing in the middle of the street (while a man repeatedly screams “OH MY GOD”) is the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty. The screen goes black. Audiences are told is that it’s from producer J.J. Abrams, it’ll be in theaters 1-18-08, and according to one partygoer, “It’s gonna be the best night ever!” There was no title.
This was a masterful teaser trailer that did exactly what a trailer was supposed to do; it got people talking. It was even more impressive that a studio had the meteoric balls to announce their latest film in this way. Teasing people with snippets of footage is one thing, but teasing people about the existence of a film that no one had heard of is another. It was later revealed that the trailer was shot two weeks before principal photography on the film had even begun.
On the unique marketing, Abrams said, “I missed the excitement of seeing a trailer when it was something completely new. So I thought ‘What if we make this film in secret without letting anyone know? And what if we play a teaser for this film no-one’s ever heard of in front of a big blockbuster and don’t even give them the name?’ I knew that if I went to the theater having never heard about this movie and saw that trailer, I’d lose my mind.”
A few days later, Paramount helped bring calm to those losing their minds and revealed a name, announcing that the film had a working title called Cloverfield and that it revolves around a monster attack in New York. This basic storyline is essentially all people really needed to know to enjoy the film, and that this monster movie was filmed by a professional amateur. A teaser poster arrived two weeks later. In the foreground was the Statue of Liberty, minus head. In the background was a partially ruined city, with smoke billowing. Again, there was no title, just the date – 1-18-08. It was a poster that said so little, yet so much.
As news dried up, die-hard obsessives with a lot of free time turned to the Internet, where the film’s viral marketing turned out to be as unique as it was weird, with a number of websites supposedly linked to the film. One of the first to be unearthed was 1-18-08.com. The site included photo snaps of characters, which could be flipped over to reveal their names. Searching the character names led to their MySpace pages. The sites Slusho.jp and Tagruato.jp (the former discovered after a character in the teaser is seen wearing a Slusho T-shirt) offered little hints about the possible origin of the monster. ethanhaaswasright.com and lilyandjason.com were just a fraction of the many sites that were mistaken to be a part of Cloverfield’s marketing campaign. The sites that were definitely related had a weird black swirly symbol visible on the page. While these all got people talking (with enough background information to work on a possible prequel), there was still little information about the film itself. Most people just wanted to know what the monster looked like.