[6 July 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The big buzz building around the Internet the last two days has centered on a striking new trailer. It features people partying, having fun, all viewed through the various handheld recording devices that have swept across the post-millennial landscape (PDAs, cellphones, camcorders). Suddenly, an Earth-shaking noise is heard. The fun stops. Another massive thud. And then a horrific, otherworldly wail. People start to panic. Before long, we are tossed into a chaotic, first person POV destruction of New York City, including mandatory symbolic obliteration (poor Statue of Liberty) and some very familiar movie monster noises (Toho, anyone?). The unusual clip – no narration, no major marketing tag lines – suddenly cuts to black. On the screen, the following title cards appear: “From J.J. Abrams” and “1/18/08”.
Fans of the Alias/Lost creator, fortunate enough to see (and in some cases, unlawfully capture) the teaser as part of the Transformers theatrical preview package, immediately rushed home and searched the Internet Movie Database for some clue as to what this proposed film, code named “Cloverfield”, was really all about. Many speculated that it would be the long dormant Godzilla sequel, which made sense since Abrams was the creative force behind the Mission Impossible franchise reboot and is currently developing a Star Trek reimagining as well. So why not give the big green radioactive lizard another shot, right? Well, that rumor was quickly nixed when studious fans recognized that Paramount (the company behind the new film) does not own the rights to the character.
Others have guessed that, based on the movie it was attached to, it may be another ‘80s cartoon title (the prime suspect: a proposed live action version of Voltron). Of course, that was also immediately negated when a World Wide Web search found readily available information on said project – and Abrams name was nowhere to be seen. From another alien invasion ala Independence Day to something called The Parasite that the producer/director has been working on, the fascinating footage – and its eventual bootlegging on the ‘Net – has caused quite a stir. It’s the kind of ‘viral’ world of mouth that marketers are mad about, especially in this interconnected age when a well placed site, a MySpace page, and constant conversation on the numerous movie and fan messageboards can keep an unreleased product viable for months.
Naturally, Paramount has been playing pirate killer, removing the various incarnations of the trailer from all known potential playback portals (YouTube, etc.), though if you look hard enough, you may still be able to find the horrible, hack quality video. Their aggressiveness has lead some to argue that the studio is really behind all the ‘illegal’ activity and is using the whole controversy as a means of generating press (and it’s worked – after all, we’re talking about it here). Through all the denials and determined PR statements, one thing’s for certain – Cloverfield is no longer a non-entity. Among the many 2008 titles generating incredibly early interest (Indiana Jones 4, Speed Racer, The Happening), this still unknown effort has moved right up to the top.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that mysterious images meshed with online elements have generated major movie curiosity. As far back as 1989, when Tim Burton announced that Michael Keaton would play the lead role in his version of Batman, the technically savvy have spent endless amounts of time in stern speculation over movies in production and decisions (both artistic and practical) by filmmakers helming their works in progress. It’s the foundation for immensely popular websites like Ain’t It Cool News and Coming Attractions. Indeed, the fanboy and the obsessive have long known the inherent value of futile flame wars over casting, concept, and characterization. While it may not change the actual movie being made, it sure helps keep the profile high and mighty. Perhaps the best example of such a strategy remains the infamous Blair Witch Project. For almost the entire year prior to its Summer 1999 release, this minor mock documentary became the most celebrated unseen horror film of the decade.
It all began with some secretly distributed videotapes. Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez wanted a little publicity for their $22,000 experiment, and knew that the growing influence of the Internet could help. As a highly believable webpage was being built centering around the movie’s mythos, the guys sent out copies to various sites. One influential individual who received a copy was AICN honcho Harry Knowles. For all his obvious self promotion, this life long film dork adored the film. In fact, it was he who started much of the “is it real, or is it fake” conjecture. His reaction was so visceral, so perfectly aligned with the response Myrick and Sanchez were looking for, that they built their entire campaign around it. It was a strategy they took to Sundance and Cannes.
Thanks to the website, and similar praise from other sources, The Blair Witch Project soon became the talk of the techs. Most of the conversation centered on the “missing” kids who supposedly starred in the film (the actors were asked to keep a very low profile until the movie was released) and how, though many claimed there was no such thing, the town of Burkittsville was indeed home to a vengeful demonic spirit. There was even an uproar over accusations of copycatting and outright plagiarism. Filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler were livid when they learned of the Blair Witch plot and format. It seemed sneakily similar to their effort The Last Broadcast, centering on a group of public access show producers who enter the New Jersey Pine Barrens – and never return.
Naturally, all the buildup, all the exposure both good and bad, all the preview screenings (and eventual leaked reviews) and SciFi Channel specials (one supposedly offering the true story of the child killer at the center of Witch’s narrative) lead to unbelievably high audience recognition, and when it finally found its way into theaters at the end of July 1999, it was a monster hit. Everyone, from the most avid horror fan to the mere curious onlooker, just had to see what this mysterious movie was all about. Hailed as some manner of masterwork, The Blair Witch Project has since become a unique, if nominal, genre fluke. It’s a hard film to watch in light of all that we now know about the production, and it no longer carries the ethereal impact it once had.
Yet studios saw how a carefully created package involving both online and standard tactics of marketing and awareness could generated immense interest (and larger than usual box office dollars). Warner Brothers jumped on board early, using the incredibly evocative tagline “What is the Matrix?” and a similarly named Internet address to begin the build-up for it’s proposed virtual reality thriller. The company followed suit by lobbing various rumors about the casting and storyline for their proposed late ‘90s Superman update (it backfired, more or less killing the project until Bryan Singer came along and jumpstarted it). Of course, the most recent example remains Snakes on a Plane. From the decision to dump the far more mundane Pacific Air 121 title, to the last minute reshoots that upped the film’s previously pegged PG-13 language and violence, New Line went all out catering to the WWW crowd. Some still believe it eventually cost the company (the film was only a moderate hit).
So whatever Cloverfield ends up being (our money is on a gimmicky, one note effort that will be low on spectacle and high on Witch like slacker confrontations), here’s hoping Abrams and Paramount play it smart. It is one thing to involve the rich vein of human curiosity that floods through the various dial-up, DSL, and cable connections across this country. When properly tapped into, said pipeline can produce dynamic dividends. But just like the flawed concepts of focus groups, and advanced screenings geared toward constantly remaking a movie to fit an elusive utilitarian entertainment ideal (the greatest good for the greatest number), you can pay too much attention to the untrained audience and end up killing whatever made your movie distinctive in the first place. The teaser certainly succeeded in its named capacity. It has us interested. It will be five more months before we know if there’s more to this story than hope – and hype.