On January 18, 2008; something had found us. A giant monster named Clover, awoken from its slumber and separated from its mother, tore up New York City, making life a living hell for the Big Apple over the course of one eventful night. At least, that was the story that was playing out on theater screens that night, as Cloverfield made its debut to a world that had been primed to its existence for months beforehand. But what could have been a run of the mill, micro-budget monster movie, actually was something much greater: it was a film that changed the way that movies could be marketed, and on a massive scale.
Through some pretty simple, yet extremely measured steps, the folks behind Cloverfield's big-ticket success launched a brand that carries on to this day. This year will see the release of a third film in the anthology started a decade ago by producer J.J. Abrams, writer Drew Goddard, and director Matt Reeves, so now is the best time to look back on that first installment -- which opened in theaters on this day 10 years ago -- to see just what made Cloverfield's marketing campaign so ingenious.
When The Marketing Actually Started
Most of the time, when you're marketing your would-be blockbuster franchise, you do it pretty far out. Take Paramount's Transformers franchise as a good example. Almost a full year before the original film's July 4th, 2007 release date, a short teaser was dropped to announce that Optimus Prime and his friends were on their way. (Watch that one here.) As luck would have it, Cloverfield would get a similarly cryptic introduction to the public, right in front of Transformers too, except it was different in two key ways: it was advertising a film set to release a little over six months later, and it lacked any inclusion of the film's name. Take a trip down memory lane, and watch that the teaser to Cloverfield all over again, below.
What began as a trailer that looked more like a feature film adaptation of Felicity turned into a fast-paced scramble for safety. All it took was that decapitated Statue of Liberty, and the screams proclaiming, "I saw it! It's alive! It's huge!' to seal Cloverfield's fate as an American prototype for a national monster to rival Godzilla himself. But exactly what was it about Cloverfield's teaser trailer that worked so well?
Ultimately, it was J.J Abrams' Mystery Box approach to marketing, which takes a story that is being sold to the audience, and conceals key pieces of information. Those pieces, to be revealed at a later date, are what other, bigger movies get to show in later trailers. So while Transformers would go on to show Optimus Prime, his allies, and his adversaries, Clover the monster wouldn't be shown until much later in the game. That lack of information teased an audience that was used to practically everything laid out pre-release, and it made the public excited to learn the truth of this new mystery film.
It all sprang from the childhood of director Matt Reeves and producers J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk, who were all of the same mind when it came to how they were going to market Cloverfield. In fact, it resurrected an approach that all three collaborators had once encountered for a specific Steven Spielberg film. In an interview with Coming Soon, Reeves told the story behind that fateful event:
As the advertising of Close Encounters of the Third Kind had to eventually give away more of the details as to what its film would be about, Cloverfield ran its entire campaign like one, extended version of that classic teaser trailer. Which all hinged on what was shown, and what was hidden, within the Mystery Box of Abrams, Burk, and Reeves.