In this modern age where no-one can keep a secret, not only is it a breath of fresh air that a blockbuster studio can pull a huge surprise hit out of its mystery bag once, but continue to do so for a second and even third time with the likelihood of more in the future. The emergence of J.J Abrams and Bad Robot’s aptly titled “Cloververse” – a cinematic universe of Twilight Zone-esque tales – have changed the way we perceive films from marketing, the groundswell of hype, the delivery of the movies themselves and all the way to hidden lore. And it all started way back in 2007.
It has been the tradition for countless decades that a film will be announced via a theatrical or TV trailer which details the basic plot along with cast and crew being named. It is a clear indication of when audiences will be able to view the finished product and what they can expect. With the introduction of early iterations of social media this all changed. 1999’s The Blair Witch Project was the first film to truly embrace the new age of technology and predominantly relied on the internet for its marketing. An accompanying mockumentary, Curse of the Blair Witch, debuted on the Sci-Fi channel detailing the legend of the Blair Witch and thus triggering the first ARG (Alternate Reality Game) in which curious fans flooded message boards with speculation on what all of this really meant. Even in its early theatrical run, it was advertised as a record of real events. The buzz from Sundance was carried on this wave of reality.
Fast forward to 2007. Audiences sitting down for the first of Michael Bay’s Transformers films were greeted with a mysterious trailer which saw the head of the Statue of Liberty come crashing down a New York street with just a date to accompany it – 1.18.08. This was just the beginning; the Cloververse was about to take it up a notch and truly change the game.
During production, the film went under various alias including “Cheese” in order to keep the internet scoopers from getting their grubby mitts on what would soon to be revealed as Cloverfield in a trailer that was attached to Beowulf. It was then that the ARG was thrust into the limelight. Fans who visited the website 1-18-08.com played the pivotal role of starting to piece together the puzzles. Rather than focusing on the film’s plot, this marketing campaign was solely advertising a fictional company named Tagruato in which this whole series’ foundation is based upon. Within this was a subsidiary company named Slusho! – a colourful Japanese drink that was set to take the world by storm. Hidden deep within this page was a familiar face to viewers of the trailer, the newly promoted Rob Hawkins.
It was around this time that early social media platforms such as MySpace and Bebo were at their peak popularity so in a move of pure genius, JJ and his team decided to add a whole other level to the ARG – giving all of the main characters their own pages to enhance the game. Speculation and theories were at their pinnacle as there were so many possibilities. Was this a new Godzilla movie? A live action VOLTRON movie? A new intellectual property? Or something entirely different? Never before had a single film created this much anticipation in the history of cinema with these methods.
This video, filmed on a phone in a cinema (not something we recommend…), caught the trailer and became part of the growing phenomena.
Our next journey through the Cloververse propels us to 2016. It had been eight years since the first Cloverfield film and the fanbases’ anticipation for a sequel had slowly dwindled over time until one night, when a trailer appeared out of nowhere. Audiences who attended the first screenings of Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi were introduced to the second piece of the Cloververse puzzle; 10 Cloverfield Lane.
It is difficult to remember if a surprise appearance of a trailer has ever, in the history of cinema, shocked audiences so much that not just social media buzz but also social circles in the real world into a state of hype and anticipation. A film that no one knew was coming, had been announced just two months before its theatrical release.
Original players in the Cloverfield ARG had thought that their days of hunting clues were long gone but once again donned their digital deerstalkers in order to solve this new mystery. This time around, the game went one step further making its way into the physical realm as well as leaving breadcrumbs on the world wide web. Once again, the fictional company Tagruato reared its ugly head leaving cryptic messages on their website along with more details on their various subsidiaries including Bold Futura and their star man, Mr Howard Stambler (John Goodman). From there, it wasn’t just a case of what will this film be about but more importantly; how does this connect to the 2008 film? Sequel? Prequel? Alternative Timeline? The internet was a changed place.
As mentioned early, the game entered the real world, as coordinates were found and a lockbox was found in America with various clues were unearthed within. Never before had a studio gone to these extreme lengths to market a horror/sci-fi film before. After the completion of the game as the release drew closer, some questions still remained: What does this mean for the future of this franchise? What other movies could secretly be a part of the Cloververse?
Just under a year later, our friends had started to figure out a trend. Any film that has the Paramount Pictures or Bad Robot named attached to it will have a high percentage chance of being the next installment of the Cloververse and this was confirmed as a spec script code named God Particle was revealed to be just that, the third installment – The Cloverfield Paradox.
In January of this year, eagle eyed fans noticed some strange happenings on, you guessed it, the Tagruato website and this sent the new age of social media; Reddit.com; into meltdown. What would JJ and co do this time to raise the bar even higher? We all knew that the film was coming and after countless hours of Redditors digging away at clues, interacting with characters and companies that appear in the film on social media and unearthing hidden video and newspaper files, all of the signs pointed at an impending trailer at one of the biggest sport events in the world; the SuperBowl. And, in a bold move of utter genius, a trailer debuted during the event that not only gave the world a title but revealed that the film was going to be available to watch on Netflix in just mere hours. That is how you make an impact.
Now, whether or not you enjoyed the film, (it has been plastered with mixed reviews due to its perceived rushed nature and (for some) confusing elements in linking it to the other films) it is hard to deny that this series, with its bold marketing strategies and layers of mystery, are something that we have never seen before. It is a trend I hope continues for the future of the franchise and potentially others in the great beyond. As J.J. Abrams said in his most famous TED talk about the mystery box; “the greatest mysteries are ultimately left unsolved” and “in honour of my grandfather, the mystery box stays closed”.
This Cloverfield fan along with many others, cannot wait to see what creative ideas this series throws at us next with Overlord and beyond. We will never look at films the same again.