Dark Horse: The Marketing Strategies of Cloverfield (2008)

Advertising and marketing are the bread-and-butter of our consumer economy, as made clear in Marketing to Moviegoers: A Handbook of Strategies and Tactics by Robert Marich. Through a twisted synergy of the two, we are barraged with overt and subliminal messages all begging us to buy something of variant value. These two professions are also intrinsically linked to new media as we find ourselves more and more obsessed with visual representation and aesthetics. A catchy tagline which may have once sufficed in a newspaper has now been forcibly transmuted into a 45-second ad during prime-time TV to more effectively grab our attention. The ubiquity of the Internet has encouraged us to become perpetually curious and ravenous for more information. Google, Wikipedia and social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter have given us a near-omniscient scope of movies past, present and future. The relative ease of looking up a film title and the trove of details that follow are unprecedented: we are now able to find out who was cast, what roles they’ll be playing, a brief synopsis and even pictures of the film set and production. This has created a conundrum for the film industry as they are essentially racing with the rate of discovering and sharing on the Internet.

Marich notes that the industry has had to play catch-up with this rapidly changing landscape and to do so, they have had to infiltrate previously unused mediums for marketing. Most notably are movie trailers and advertisements, seen in theaters and on television but most popular on the Internet. These snippets of a given film are instrumental to the movie’s general success. A movie with a poorly executed marketing campaign may have a less than stellar opening weekend and never recover. Even teasers have become commonplace and are often eagerly anticipated by fans and audiences. These special types of very short trailer have grown in popularity over the past decade or so, serving little purpose other than generating discussion, rumors and overall hype. They appear to be most effective when used with blockbusters or franchises with established demographics and fans. In 2015, trailers are almost more important than the movies they’re based on as studios precipitate viewers’ excitement and issue press releases and countdowns until a trailer debuts. The aforementioned teaser strategy is best implemented by big names due to the financial risk that may follow a smaller, less well-known films and studios, however, executive producer J.J. Abrams challenged this formula.

Abrams’s studio logo.

J.J. Abrams

In January 2008, Abrams and director Matt Reeves released Cloverfield to an unusually warm opening weekend of $41 million, defying the cold, typical knell of January releases. The critical and monetary success of this film can easily be attributed to the marketing and advertising used. Abrams, best known for his direction of the next Star Wars film as well as the last two Star Trek movies and the beloved TV series, Lost, decided to aggressively rev the hype machine’s engine with a full-fledged trailer in the vein of a mysterious teaser. The trailer debuted during Michael Bay’s blockbuster Transformers, which was released in July 2007. Composed of a found-footage narrative akin to The Blair Witch Project, viewers of the trailer were immediately thrown into the scene of a going-away party in a lush New York apartment. The rest of the trailer unravels with mounting chaos, demonstrated by loud bangs, random explosions and lots of screaming.

This was a risky move on several levels, the most dangerous being the sheer disorientation forced upon the audience. Another aspect of this marketing gamble was the total lack of exposition or explanation. The trailer doesn’t even end with the title of the movie! All that we know is that it’s been made by the same people who brought us Mission Impossible III. Nonetheless, this all paid off as made evident in the film’s earnings and reviews. The mystery which shrouded Cloverfield created a ripple effect within the industry, encouraging other studios and advertising boutiques to engage in similar strategies. As depicted in the featured image, the posters for the film were equally enigmatic. Clearly, the Statue of Liberty is the centerpiece, but what’s happened to her? And why is it attacking New York City? What is the “some thing” that has “found us”? The suspense created by the lack of story elements led to an enormous amount of conversations and interest around the film. Supplementing these curious bits of the movie were not one, but two entire websites which was based on a fictional company that hired the protagonist. Though these niche elements weren’t made totally clear to the masses, those who did bother to explore them learned more about the events of the film and the lore of its diagesis. I suppose now would be a good time to admit that this was one of the first movies that I totally obsessed over and with good reason – to this day, I remember how transfixed I was by the first trailer and how that sense of suspense stayed with me throughout the movie. Cloverfield changed the rules of the movie advertisement game and, for that, I believe its marketing strategies merit both analysis and acclaim.

Cloverfield poster by Paramount Pictures.

Sources:

Marich, Robert. Marketing to Moviegoers: A Handbook of Strategies and Tactics. N.p.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2013. Print.

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