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Movie Marketing Madness: 10 Cloverfield Lane

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It’s kind of hard to think back to 2007 and recollect the anticipation surrounding the upcoming release of Cloverfield. It wasn’t the mass hype that would accompany later releases like The Dark Knight or Iron Man, where All of Media was turned out to hype a couple Major Releases. It was more like a hipster band’s new record. Not everyone was talking about the movie, nor were many people even aware it was coming out. Or if they were they had no information about it. It wasn’t a sequel, a book (or comic) adaptation and didn’t feature any major stars to get the audience’s attention. If the general audience was aware of it they likely just knew it was some kind of monster movie.

Those of us who *were* aware of the movie were all-in, though. That’s largely because the marketing team at Bad Robot (and Paramount to some extent) had set the table for us by running one of the first truly internet-based campaigns. In the months leading up to release Bad Robot ran an Alternate Reality Game that sucked us into the world of the movie before we even knew what the actual plot was. We followed along with the messages Jamie was sending Teddy on their shared YouTube account, her telling him she missed him now that he was leaving to go to work in Japan. We watched as Tagruato, the makers of Slusho, suffered an odd and unexpected disaster at one of its facilities in the middle of the ocean. It was immersive and, while the story of the ARG didn’t feed directly into the movie, it introduced us to that universe and created all kinds of questions for the audience. More than that, it got those who were playing along emotionally invested before the movie actually hit theaters, creating a sense of urgency.

Which is makes it odd that it seems Cloverfield has kind of faded to something nonessential in terms of the movie itself. No, it’s not the best movie ever. But it was such a touchstone in 2008 that seeing it take a backseat in our cultural memory is surprising. This is a movie we should be consistently discussing and dissecting for how it changed film marketing and releasing. While J.J. Abrams, who produced the movie, has certainly gone on to bigger things perhaps part of the reason it’s not being consistently brought up and reevaluated is that, unlike every other movie ever, it didn’t get an immediate sequel. But now that’s changing. Kind of.

10 Cloverfield Lane has been described as a “blood relative” of the original or a “spiritual sequel to the 2008 movie with whom it shares part of its name. Not a direct sequel, it does take place in the same universe but it’s unclear if it happens before or after the events of Cloverfield and the talent has made it clear this new one shares some of the first movie’s DNA. This latest installment has a simple story: After Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is in a car accident she’s taken in by Howard (John Goodman) to his survival shelter. Howard is there with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), riding out what Howard believes to be a chemical attack. OK, so maybe that’s not so simple.

Like the first movie there’s not only been a traditional marketing campaign in advance of release but also an ARG element that’s provided backstory on at least some of the characters so we can understand them and their motives before being thrown into the movie’s story.

The Posters

10 cloverfield lane poster imaxThe first poster, which debuted along with the teaser trailer, is mostly about establishing the setting. The very top of the poster shows a house out in the middle of nowhere with a tunnel going down through the ground and forming both the “I” and the top of the “L” in the title treatment. So it’s hinted that we’re dealing with an underground story. Above that title treatment we see copy telling us “Monsters coming in many forms,” which plays with our expectations a bit.

Forming a one-two punch with the teaser trailer this helped setup the movie and hinted at what the story is while telling us almost nothing about it.

The next poster was an IMAX-specific one-sheet and really ups the creepiness factor. It shows a farmhouse in the background, standing in the fields and against an ominously cloudy background. In the foreground is the house’s mailbox but when you look more closely you see the door to it looks reinforced and features a small window through which you can see what looks to be a female figure with her face and hands pressed up against the glass trying to get out.

The Trailers

The marketing for the film kicked off with no preamble by debuting a teaser trailer that knocked just about everyone’s socks off. It starts off by showing what appears to be a normal house, with the residents playing music on a jukebox, playing board games and making puzzles. Then suddenly something shakes the ground and we see they’re living in an underground bunker. After that it becomes things are a lot more tense than we believed at first as fires are lit, guns are brandished and more. Ultimately, Winstead’s character smashes Goodman’s with a bottle and runs up the stairs to the exit, slamming the first of two doors behind her as he pleads with her not to go out there. That plead, along with the final “Something’s coming” are the only words we hear in the trailer.

It’s an enormously effective trailer that sets us a lot of mysteries and had lots of people speculating about what it might be all about and what, if any, connection it had to 2008’s Cloverfield. It should be noted that the impact of the trailer – which debuted at screenings of another Paramount release, 13 Hours, and then online shortly thereafter – was heightened because it came out of nowhere, without a 6-second tease on Instagram and without weeks of expectation and setup.

Shortly after the first trailer debuted people discovered a website for Swamp Pop Soda, which is seen in the trailer and which is a real company, not one that’s made up for the movie like Slusho in the first one. On the site you could order site but not in “Long Term Shelter Supply” quantities. When people received their soda orders they came along with a couple puzzle pieces – another nod to the trailer where we see the characters working on a puzzle – that of course Reddit was able to crowdsource assemble into a picture of the Eiffel Tower.

A second trailer was much shorter – just a minute – and much more terrifying. It starts with Michelle handcuffed to the wall, Howard explaining that he saved her life because everyone outside their bunker is dead. She gets Emmett’s story but soon starts questioning Howard’s story. So she becomes determined to escape and eventually does, though what she finds outside is only known to us through some flashing lights and a monstrous roar that sounds over the farm house.

It only provides like 5% more of the story but certainly continues to convey the sense of dread and mystery that was setup in the first spot. The include of that roar also got lots of people speculating about what it meant and how it implied a connection to the Cloverfield monster.

When that trailer played in theaters, debuting in front of Deadpool, five different versions played, one at each of the major theater chains across the country. While they were mostly the same each one featured some small detail that was hidden in it for just a second, shorter than could be registered by the naked eye but which could be captured via freeze-framing it. More on this below.

Online and Social

The movie’s official website is…not much. There are only two options here, one to watch the first trailer and the other to buy tickets. I’ve scrolled around the site, trying highlighting everything on the page with my mouse to try and unlock something hidden…nothing. Clips, TV spots, countdown images and more can be found on the Facebook page for the movie. Nothing unusual here.

The Tagruato ARG Campaign

The ARG aspect of the campaign picked up the threads of where the Cloverfield effort left off eight years ago. That began with an email that was sent to people who had registered on the Tagruato website that was part of the 2007/08 game. That email seemed innocuous and told recipients that the account was no longer active, but of course this being new correspondence it was a hint there would likely be more coming.

Later on employee pages were added to the Tagruato website profiling Howard and the people who had sent the emails mentioned earlier. The picture of Howard led people to Radioman70.com, which held its own set of clues leading to another site that eventually (again via the efforts of the Reddit community) led to another site that revealed a letter from a man to his estranged daughter named Megan, Howard’s daughter. So that’s an interesting bit of character backstory and speaks to his paranoia about some sort of attack he believes is looming.

More messages were posted to that site over time that featured more details about the bunker he was building, how he wanted her to come meet him and just what kind of attacks he was asking her to be ready for. This eventually collided with the subliminal images hidden in theatrical presentations of the second trailer, as it was discovered those images equated to coordinates and, when someone went there, they found survival gear along with another letter from Howard with a letter to whoever found it saying more would be coming.

10 cloverfield lane pic

The survivalist streak continued when a game was discovered on the site Howard was using to communicate with his daughter that was meant to start teaching her some skills. It was set up like an old PC game, which apparently she used to play, and put the player in charge of making quick decisions to try and survive in a shelter with limited resources and so on. People kept playing that game and posting high scores, to which Walter would respond by congratulating Megan on her hard work.

That activity lead to the discovery of a phone in a Chicago hostel that had a message from Howard, who in a website update later revealed he used to work for the government and is *really* worried about the Soviets.

Another update uncovered a Craigslist auction for an heirloom set of silverware that Howard was given by his father and which he intended for Megan but which Howard now says is being sold by his ex-wife out of spite. A back-and-forth by someone with the seller revealed that she knows exactly what Howard is up to in trying to contact Megan and she said so in an update of her own on the Fun and Pretty Things site.

And that pretty much takes us up to launch and, presumably, the movie itself. Howard is in his bunker waiting for his daughter, who may or may not be on her way.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Because of the very tight window between when the marketing kicked off and release, advertising kicked off almost immediately after the release of the first trailer, with Twitter ads in particular popping up that featured a condensed version of the trailer.

The first TV spot for the movie, indeed the first bit of marketing after the trailer release, was a Super Bowl commercial that went a lot (relatively) deeper into the story. This one starts off with Michelle crashing her car followed by her being taken in by Howard, who talks about how he’s been preparing for days like this in his survival bunker. Things go south and the trailer ends with her escaping and something massive approaching from behind the farmhouse. It’s pretty effective and plays broadly enough to likely appeal well to the mass audience of the game.

The studio made such a big TV push for the movie it wound up topping the charts of spenders there in the weeks leading up to release.

More online ads popped up through the weeks leading up to release, most of which used the movie’s key art. And there were more than a few audio ads I came across while listening to Spotify and various podcasts.

Media and Publicity

There was some press back in 2014, when the movie was being shot, about what it is and what it was about but that was it for over a year. At the time of that initial wave it was still being called “The Cellar” or “Valencia,” which may have been names used to throw people off the scent but then it was never mentioned by any of the people involved for more than an entire year. Winstead talked later about the veil of secrecy that the production of the movie was wrapped in.

Just a few weeks prior to release Abrams did a big press push, which makes sense since even though he isn’t the director he *is* the biggest name involved and was still flying high after Star Wars. That push had Abrams talking about how the movie was developed from a spec script into something more fully-grown the process of casting the movie and what he was looking for in each of the leads, what the connection is or isn’t to Cloverfield, how involved he was in the production, keeping the movie a secret for so long and lots more.

cloverfield_lane_trailer_2016_screen_shot_h_2016

Walking the line between franchise and not-franchise continued to be a major part of the press, something that was touched on in this story that talked with Abrams about the several layers of mystery this new movie was wrapped in. Trachtenberg and Winstead also talked about the experience of shooting the movie in that environment and how the strategy of waiting until just two months before release to kick off the marketing felt like making a big, scary bet.

In the final week before release the cast and crew made the publicity rounds, appearing on late night talk shows and doing Reddit AMAs and so on to make the final appeal for audiences to see the movie. And at the movie’s premiere the cast talked more about making the movie while Abrams hinted that there were bigger plans for the “Cloverfield” brand that they’re still sussing out and seeing if they can happen.

Overall

I’ll say this at the outset: The campaign made an impact, something too few do these days, even those that are for big, blockbuster tentpole movies that are part of franchises with household-name stars. It did that through something we don’t see much of in this age of set visits, leaked photos, talent Instagram and more: Good old-fashioned surprise. More specifically it created something the audience didn’t (largely) know about and then told it just enough to whet the collective appetite. Those first trailers and plot details did a lot of promising of something to come while not going overboard into setting up too many mysteries. It set up one mystery and kept sustaining that note: What’s going on here?

That’s the real value of Abrams’ beloved “mystery box” approach. It’s not about who Rey’s parents are, what John Harrison’s real name is or anything like that. It’s about creating a real sense of wonder in the audience and getting them wondering why the characters are doing what they’re doing. If you look at the trailers for classic noir movies that’s the central theme, selling the audience on the bare bones of a story that will keep them guessing until the moment it’s explained, sometimes satisfactorly and sometimes not.

The marketing here sells just the kind of movie. While we get certain plot details the campaign doesn’t explain why Howard thinks the way he does, much less whether he’s right or not. And unlike the campaign for 2008’s Cloverfield, which continually sold a new take on a kaiju story, this one is more focused on the psychological ramifications of a massive event happening. It’s a much more intimate story but one that’s no less frightening. As the campaign states over and over, monsters come in all shapes and it’s done a good job of both selling the movie in a straight-forward manner and, for those playing along with the online elements, creating a sense of anticipation to see what’s next for the world we first visited eight years ago.

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