“Five young New Yorkers throw their friend a going-away party the night that a monster the size fo a skyscraper descends upon the city. Told from the point of view of their video camera, the film is a document of their attempt to survive the most surrea, horrifying event of their lives.”
That plot description comes from the official site for Cloverfield, the new movie from director Matt Reeves and producer J.J. Abrams. But that really doesn’t do justice to the impact that the movie’s marketing campaign has had on the audience, especially the audience online.
To understand just how fervent the buzz has been about the movie, you kind of have to look at how Paramount sold the movie in two completely different ways to two completely different audiences. Or, as I call it:
The Tale of Two Cloverfield Campaigns
Campaign The First (Or, We Are Selling You A Movie Which You May Like to See)
This campaign has been, for the most part, made up of the traditional elements of a movie marketing push. The intent has clearly been to sell the movie to a particular audience using, as most campaigns do, clips and other material from the movie in order to build interest and enthusiasm.
The first trailer, as we all know, debuted in front of this past summer’s blockbuster Transformers. Aside from a few reports on AICN, ComingSoon and a handful of other sites the trailer mostly took the audience by surprise. And even those members of the audience who knew a trailer for a new, mysterious J.J. Abrams would be appearing I don’t think knew what they were about to see.
Certainly a big enough chunk of the audience was shocked and awed that the ensuing wave of online commentary was among the most massive I’ve ever seen. Everyone, it seemed, came out of seeing Transformers and searched for this movie, untitled in the trailer, that seemed to chronicle via digital video camera first a going-away party for someone named Rob and then the invasion of New York by something capable of decapitating the Statue of Liberty.
When those people – and others – did go and search for the one clue that was readily available, the movie’s release date, they were taken to what for a long while was the movie’s official website, 1-08-08.com. There they saw a photo from Rob’s going-away party.
This site would occasionally have photos added to it, sometimes of things that were obviously related to the movie like two women staring up at something horrific or people evacuating the scene of a disaster. Other times photos would be more cryptic and mysterious, like the one showing a chef holding up his creation.
Each one was time-stamped, allowing the visitor to see when it was taken. This was especially helpful on the ones that were obviously movie-related since you could arrange them in such a way to build a chronology of the night’s events, moving from party to terror. Biro later clued me in to the fact that you could shake them with your computer mouse and have them flip over. A couple of them then had something written on the back. Specifically, the one of the chef had the recipe for whatever it is he’s holding, and the one with a couple of party-goers had a note from the girl in the picture, Jamie, wishing Rob well on his trip. (Note: Remember that name for later)
Eventually a teaser poster appeared for the still-unnamed movie. While still not divulging the name, it did show the Statue of Liberty, now sans head, standing watch (now harder because of the lack of said head) over New York City. There’s also, if you look closely, a wake in the water between Liberty Island and the Manhattan shore. That was one of the first clues in this mainstream campaign that the monster that will invoke such havoc on the city springs from the depths of the sea.
The mainstream campaign then largely died down somewhere around in the early fall. Pictures continued to be added to the 1-18-08 site, but that was about it. This seemed to be a direct result of the fact that the movie was still unnamed. After all, it’s hard to run a mass-awareness campaign for a movie whose name is still being held as a secret.
That’s just one of the reasons that releasing an un-branded trailer was such a big risk. Not only do you miss out on the chance to tell the audience for that trailer what the name of the movie is, a name they can then plan with and add to their list of movies to see, but you kind of lose the ability to run an extensible campaign. While you can get away with such a move with a trailer you certainly can’t run un-branded TV spots. That’s not going to create mystery and intrigue, it’s going to create mass confusion and turn people away from that movie where the studio can’t even be bothered to tell us what it is they’re advertising.
But the gamble of the unnamed trailer certainly did pay off for Abrams and Paramount here. That likely had as much to do with the fact that it came from Abrams, whose core audience is certainly used to trying to decipher his stuff from “Alias” and “Lost” as it did that the trailer dropped in front of Transformers. That audience is, in large part, going to be pre-disposed to sci-fi type movies that make a big splash in order to get their attention. That latter audience is also of an age and a disposition to be online, where they can post their reactions to the trailer to their blogs, their social network profiles or in some other fashion spread the word online, even if it’s just through one-to-one communications like email or text message.
But then around mid-December the official campaign started back up in earnest.
The first salvo was a new trailer that, instead of seeming like it was pulled from the opening of the movie (which it kind of was) this one looked and felt more like a traditional trailer. The scenes presented were pulled from throughout the movie and presented a better look at the core group of characters that we’d be following in the movie.
This new trailer also opened with a few shots of Rob’s going away party. But preceding that was a title card designating, in military-type speak, the footage as being part of “Case Designate: Cloverfield” that was recovered at the site “formerly known as Central Park.”
More importantly, it finally gave the movie a name, the same one most of the online world had been using as shorthand most of the time: Cloverfield. I argued shortly before that revelation that Abrams and Paramount would be wise to retain the Cloverfield name largely because that’s how people had been referring to it in countless online and offline discussions. Branding it as anything other than Cloverfield would, I thought, create an unnecessary speedbump in the word-of-mouth momentum the movie had built up. So, while by no means thinking they made their decision based on what I had said, I was relieved they went with Cloverfield, which Abrams later admitted was the name he had for the project all along.
The release of this trailer followed the same rough pattern as that of the first. It debuted in theaters in front of screenings of Beowulf. That was followed by cellphone videos people had shot at those screenings, followed by the official release online the following Monday.
Now, though, the game had changed. The movie now had an official, publicly known name. The mainstream audience that might be wary of viral techniques or movies they don’t even know the name of could now fully be appealed to.
The release of the trailer online brought with it the launch of Cloverfieldmovie.com, the movie’s new official site. At first the site was incredibly sparse, just sporting the poster artwork as a background and the new trailer as content. More was added to the site later, including the “how vague can we be” plot synopsis at the top of this article. The teaser trailer was also added, as well as links to the movie’s Facebook and MySpace brand pages.
Also on the site is a widget people could grab. That widget contained a video clip of the first five minutes of Cloverfield complete with introduction by producer Abrams himself. The widget could be embedded anywhere – blog, social network profile, personalized home page and more – and also came with a contest attached to it. You could either just snag the widget or, if you wanted to try and win a screening of the movie for you and your friends or other swag you could register and grab a personalized (at least on a code level) version.
The contest was structured so that the person who had the widget with their personalized identifier grabbed by others the most won the screening, with subsequent lower prizes for those coming in on down the food chain.
Despite the issue I had with the contest (why wouldn’t you just go to the official site and grab your own instead of helping someone else?) I do think the idea of the widget was a good one. Not only did it provide fans with a much lusted-after look at the opening sequence from the movie but it also incentivized the spreading of word-of-mouth, giving widget grabbers something tangible for their participation in spreading the reach of the clip.
Around this same time the advertising for the movie began. The poster finally got branded. Ads showed up online to some extent (most of the few that I saw were billboard or tower units that contained video as well) but especially on TV. At first the TV spots seemed, based on what I was hearing on Twitter and elsewhere, to be limited to outlets like Sci-Fi Channel and such, but in the final weeks the reach expanded to just about everything I watched – and I don’t watch much TV. There also appears, based on this photo from Jeff Wells, to have been some outdoor advertising done.
Paramount even began using MSN’s new mobile ad format to reach users of smart phones and other advanced devices under the thinking that technophiles greatly overlap with the movie’s target audience. I can’t say as I disagree with that thinking, and indeed it follows the same sort of thought process as placing the teaser trailer in front of Transformers (discounting the fortunate corporate studio synergy available there).
In all just over 15 TV spots seem to have been produced, a mix of 30- and 15-second spots. Some showed a new shot here or there (including one that featured a new shot of the attacking monster, though of course it was obscured nicely) but mostly the footage was pulled from what we had already seen in one or both of the existing trailers. You can check them all out on this YouTube playlist I built with the help of CloverFieldClues.
I expressed some disappointment with the fact that TV spots had been produced and were airing. Part of that was the feeling that the marketing for the movie, which had been pretty clever up until that point, would now be dragged down in order to reach a mass audience who is just hoping for some decent entertainment so they can escape their worries for a while.
To some extent my fears wound up being justified. The spots sold the movie primarily as a monster movie and not as anything all that special. There were little hints and hat-tips to the trailers and such but for the most part the advertising campaign was selling a movie about a beast that attacks New York and the people who are scrambling for survival.
That actually may well be an accurate description of the movie. But for those of us paying attention online the campaign had a second, more engaging level to it.
Campaign the Second (Or, Why Did Jamie Eat That When Teddy Told Her Not To?)
This branch of the campaign has happened parallel to the mainstream campaign, occasionally coming close to but never quite joining that other push. This one has been designed to be more interactive, engaging and interesting to the online audience.
The main conceit driving the online campaign has been that the events of the movie take place on January 18th, 2008, the film’s release date. We are following the character’s lives, though, through MySpace pages, online video and more in real time as they all careen toward that date. So when it’s 12/15, for instance, in our world, it’s 12/15 in the movie’s world as well.
There are two main components to this online ARG (alternate reality game) that need to be explored.
The first is Slusho. Slusho is a frozen drink concoction – kind of like a Slurpee – that apparently is so addictive and enjoyable that the marketing copy point for it is “You can’t drink just six!” Slusho started out as a throw-away reference on Abrams’ “Alias” TV show but now is playing a key role in the movie.
In fact the Slusho product home page was one of the first sites found that was confirmed to be part of the Cloverfield campaign. The page features all sorts of cartoon characters and a bit of information on the drink and the company that makes it, Tagruato Corporation. You could even buy Slusho t-shirts and hats and download buddy icons and other stuff for your use.
The animation and images on the site have provided a rich vein for those seeking clues as to the movie’s plot. Some of these are probably intentional red herrings, but that hasn’t stopped people online from wondering just what role Slusho plays in the movie.
About a month or so before the release date the fictional Tagruato ran a contest asking people to create their own commercials for Slusho, spots that needed, the rules said, to emphasize just what a non-stop happy experience Slusho was. The contest was very real and solicited a good number of entries, a statement to just how much people wanted to have some fun and – and this is the important part – how much they wanted to participate in the build-up to a movie they were obviously looking forward to.
Creating a campaign that’s so immersive and engaging that people will spend their day creating videos for a product they know is fake means the creators have obviously tapped into something truly special. Most real brands have a hard time doing that. These consumer creators are, hopefully, being embraced by Paramount for just how much effort they’ve put into helping the studio out.
That kind of engagement aside, Slusho went from “plays into the movie somehow” to being directly related to the movie’s events in the weeks just prior to release.
That’s when Rob announced, via his MySpace blog, that he had been hired by Slusho and would be heading to Japan shortly. With that announcement not only has Slusho been brought directly into the lives of one of the movie’s characters but we now know just why Rob’s friends needed to throw him a going-away party.
Around that same time tragedy befell the fictional Tagruato Corp. But let’s back up for a minute.
The company’s home page had been the subject of much scrutiny and speculation since it was found online. The site occasionally fell victim to “hacks” that put up mysterious messages from those obviously displeased with the company, including once when a page of a book was put there that seemed to hint at some danger Tagruato knew about but was willfully ignoring.
Visitors to the site could even sign up for email messages from Tagruato, most of which were all about how wonderful the company was and how well it was progressing in getting Slusho’s key ingredient – seabed’s nectar – approved for sale in the United States.
There were also sonar images occasionally that showed something large and unidentified moving through the waters of the Atlantic Ocean on a westward course, seemingly heading toward the Eastern shore of the U.S.
That path included a stop at a drilling station owned by Tagruato that lead to the tragedy alluded to earlier.
Told via news reports from around the world, the Chuai Station owned by Tagruato is seen falling into the sea. Those news reports are made up of footage shot from helicopter as well as video that seems to be shot from inside the station as people evacuate and then try to escape to safety on a motorboat.
As they speed away from the station, though, wreckage begins to be hurled up out of the sea by some mysterious force, with a large chunk of support beam eventually falling on the boat containing the survivors. Tagruato issued a statement saying while it couldn’t explain why huge debris came flying out of the water, the destruction of the station was almost certainly the work of an eco-terrorism group that had targeted the company
Accompanying this development were one and then two more pictures that were added to 1-18-08.com, the first time pictures on the site represented something that was happening in the real-time campaign. The first showed a shot seemingly torn from the news coverage of the station disaster of the ill-fated boat and its occupants. The second showed a shot of the station from farther back, with part of the picture pixilated out, like they were trying to hide something. Say, for instance, part of a huge monster. The final one was a night-vision shot of some sort of massive bombardment attack on the station.
This is, to the best of my knowledge, the only time the ARG campaign and the mainstream push intersected. While 1-18-08.com was certainly part of the overall online experience, it wasn’t part of the unfolding real-time events. It existed outside of the progression of the rest of the movie’s characters, acting as a hub of pictorial hub for those enthusiasts trying to sniff out every possible clue from the pictures released there. While that’s still true of this last batch of additions it’s worth noting that this is seemingly the one break in continuity that’s happened in the campaign.
So if Slusho/Tagruato is the first component of the online alternate reality campaign what, you might be asking, is the second?
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Jamie & Teddy.
Jamie & Teddy is a site set up by, well, Jamie and Teddy. The two characters from the film’s universe are dating and apparently serious enough that registering a domain together was a logical step. The site plays host to video messages from Jamie (the girl, just to be clear) to Teddy, who has gone off to Japan as part of his job. She sits on her bed and flips open the webcam and records her thoughts to Teddy.
In the first couple episodes that was about it. Jamie would tell Teddy how amazing he was, how she enjoyed their last night together or their last text conversation or something like that. But then at some point Teddy stopped communicating. At first Jamie appears concerned that he’s too busy or something but eventually concern turns to frustration.
During this communications breakdown (I’ll give everyone a moment to go over to iTunes and start their Led Zeppelin. Ho hum. La dee da. OK, done? Let’s continue.) Jamie receives a package from Teddy containing a wrapped box that, according to the note, she’s not to open until a date in December. It’s between the arrival of the package and the “Open on…” date that things start to go south, with Jamie in full “You slimeball you left me for some skanky whore” mode when opening the package.
Its contents are a Slusho hat, a small packet of something wrapped in tinfoil and a message from Teddy telling her he’s been kidnapped by Tagruato and to make sure the package’s contents get into someone’s hands and, whatever she does, don’t eat what’s in the packet.
Of course she later eats it.
Whatever it is – most people online believe it’s the mysterious “seabed’s nectar” that goes into Slusho and I think that makes sense – it has some odd effects in our dear Jamie. Shortly after tasting it (which she does after making a call to Teddy’s place of employment in Japan, which seems to produce an ominous reaction) she bolts away from the camera saying suddenly that she’s going out. That’s followed by a message from an utterly drunk Jamie. That, then, is followed by her donning what can only be described as a purple ninja suit and doing an interpretive dance to describe the depths of her loathing for him. That, in turn, is followed by her dismembering a teddy bear (get it- Teddy = teddy) in a slow and deliberate manner.
After Jamie ate the nectar or whatever was in the packet I opined that the only acceptable conclusion for her character at this point was for her to die. The character seemed to be getting dumber episode-to-episode, and the idea that this ingredient in its pure form is fatal would have added some real depth to the online aspect of the campaign. Alas we already knew that was not to be since she shows up in one of the pictures on 1-18-08 that were taken on at Rob’s party the night of the attack.
I’ll give credit where credit’s due. Despite the de-evolution of Jamie, the series was pretty entertaining and interesting to watch, especially when the connection to the movie’s events became more and more clear. You can watch all the Jamie & Teddy videos here.
That same thing can be said of the entire alternate-reality campaign. Watching the characters move in their own ways toward their fate – whatever the movie shows that to be – is intriguing. It helps us view them not just as characters on the screen but people who we’re invested in emotionally.
That sort of investment seems to have been the primary goal of this branch of the campaign. What I mean by that is along the same lines as what Karina said last week, that in times of disaster – especially disaster on this sort of scale – what we worry about most is our own physical safety and the physical safety of our loved ones. Other concerns will come later but in the moment, when so many things are endangering our well-being and we don’t know what it is that’s causing it, it’s all about preservation.
So by setting up the campaign so that we got to know and even care about these characters the emotions we view the movie through have been changed. We’re not just rooting for the good guy because he’s the good guy, we’re hoping our friends Rob and Beth and the others make it to safety. Our emotional connection to the characters, and subsequently to the movie, have been deepened, probably resulting in a better experience as an audience. It’s the difference between watching a YouTube video of a roller coaster ride and taking the ride yourself.
It’s hard to call any campaign that inspires this much amount of fan scrutiny anything but a resounding success. It’s hard to call any campaign that inspires such a cottage industry of blogs devoted to just this movie – a movie that hasn’t even opened yet – anything other than a success. Obviously people were drawn in to the campaign by the mysterious, unnamed trailer and the unusual take on a disaster movie.
The two-pronged campaign certainly was a great decision by Abrams and the studio. I don’t think, even if things had kicked off as they did with that initial trailer, that potential fans online would have been as engaged and enthused if there had just been a poster, trailer and Website just like every other movie out there, no matter how cool the movie looked. It would have been subject to the same level of “insider” reports and spy leaks as every other movie.
But by, essentially, giving the online audience a regular supply of new rawhides to chew on Abrams and Paramount were able to earn their loyalty and turn them from casual or even devoted fans into surrogate marketing agents. The bloggers who write about movies in general or this movie in particular were the ones selling the movie, broadcasting the new material that was given to them all over the Internet.
The mainstream campaign, too, was a cut above – it’s hard to match those trailers especially. While I might bemoan the fact that Paramount had to advertise the movie in a traditional manner (remember, advertising is what you do when you don’t have a story to tell, and this one did) the fact of the matter is that they did have to. At least they did so pretty well.
Especially considering the mainstream campaign was hampered to some extent by the online execution. The CloverfieldMovie.com site couldn’t exactly be loaded with information since that would spoil the alternate reality being set up elsewhere. So that site feels kind of barebones. That doesn’t detract from the campaign, though, since that was born of necessity and not laziness or lack of commitment.
I think it’s the enthusiasm of the general audience that most qualifies the marketing as successful. Twitter, even just the subset including the people I follow, has been lousy with people talking about the commercials, trailers or discussion of when people will be seeing the movie. Some mainstream writers loved the interactivity and engagement. Others say the campaign has been far too clever for its own good.
Whatever your opinion might be, the campaign got people talking. The campaign got people caring. The campaign got people sharing of their own vocation. The campaign got people involved.
Gallery of images from 1-18-08.com:
PICKING UP THE SPARE
- 11/19/08: Via Rex via Waxy comes this Google Maps overlay tour of the Cloverfield monster’s path through New York City, as well as approximations of where and how the human characters attempted to flee through the city.