The Statue of Liberty's head bounces down 5th Avenue, crushing cars, her patinated face ravaged by claw marks from an unseen creature. Audiences seated for Transformers in 2007 caught sight of this in a short teaser (opens in new tab) for an untitled movie, unaware of what it was promoting. This was the beginning of Bad Robot's marketing plan for Cloverfield. It got everyone's attention and held it, a remarkable feat when nobody had any idea what the film was even about or who was in it. And now JJ Abrams and his cohorts have gone and done it again with 10 Cloverfield Lane.
Deemed a "blood relative (opens in new tab)" and not a strict sequel, it opens this month in the US and no-one knows much about this film either. In the nine years between movies, hardly any major releases adopted a similar promotional strategy, which is perplexing for an industry that obsessively pursues trends. Cloverfield campaigns are thrifty, inventive and best of all, spoiler-free. So why are we still bombarded with marketing that gives away all the good stuff?
Here's the big difference: Bad Robot knows who's going to see Cloverfield. It's not trying to draw dollars away from prestige dramas or animated family flicks by changing a beloved franchise at its core to widen its appeal. Nor is it planning to ride on the coattails of its predecessor by plugging images of the monster from the first movie. Knowing the audience is key: who's going to see this movie? People who don't like spoilers.
For Cloverfield and its new spin-off, the marketing mantra is simple: Don't give 'em what they want. Give 'em nothing. It worked before and it's working now. Video clips, fake websites, enigmatic artwork, and MySpace character profiles were the tools used for promotion and together they comprised an extensive mythology surrounding the beast and its world. The Tagruato organisation who create Slusho - the soft drink that cross-pollinates all of Abrams' movies and shows - had a dedicated site purported to include hidden secrets about the beast (opens in new tab). Those MySpace profiles revealed backstory on the characters. Murky stills on the official movie site were analysed by those desperate to find answers. A trail of breadcrumbs was left for those eager to discover more, but hidden from plain sight for those who weren’t. Happy to be in the dark? Cool. There's the teaser, see you opening night. Want more? Dig deeper. The choice was yours.
The 10 Cloverfield Lane campaign continues down a similar path, updated only to reflect and incorporate newer technology. The ARG (augmented reality game) at its center is like a treasure hunt for wannabe sleuths in the digital age. There's the same type of content - interactive video, text, imagery - as before, except it's now pushing fans to undertake bigger and better challenges in order to earn knowledge about the movie. Geo-caching (opens in new tab), a survival scenario text-based adventure game (opens in new tab) and a new website (opens in new tab) supposedly created by one of the film's main characters are three of the most ambitious components to this puzzle. And there's no other word that best describes this campaign; it's a puzzle with pieces so far-flung and complex that there's even a subReddit (opens in new tab) dedicated to its solution.
There are two sides to this type of promotional approach. It's not only spoiler-free, but it directly targets fans that are most likely to see 10 Cloverfield Lane in theaters. Bad Robot has designed a bespoke marketing scheme aimed at movie lovers who enjoy investigating the puzzles and not having everything offered up on a plate. And it works, but this isn't a one-size-fits-all scenario. Both Cloverfield movies have small-to-mid-range budgets, and at their indie cores, they're vastly different from your traditional blockbuster that requires a larger scale of campaign. Still, it is possible for massive summer releases to generate solid returns without resorting to spoilers. But not every movie can rely on an intricately-plotted ARG (opens in new tab) to drum up publicity.
Take something like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (opens in new tab) for instance, where a traditional promotional approach is the best way to reach its intended audience. It's this audience whose multiplex habits are casual - they'll catch a movie, any movie, because they fancy a night at the cinema - whom Warner Bros is relying on to make the film a success. The film is a costly venture and the future of the DC Cinematic Universe hinges on it making hundreds of millions in a short space of time. That desire for a record-breaking opening weekend has trumped any plans to keep aces up sleeves until the first public screening. Dawn of Justice's promo footage casts a wide net as a way of broadening its appeal to general audiences, and to make sure once they're hooked they remain hooked until it opens. As a result the marketing materials are jam-packed with spoilers. It didn't start out that way, though.
The first teaser (opens in new tab) is superb, a morsel of promise, dropping tiny hints into shots that fans analysed via screen grabs. If you're happy to not know more and still want to see the movie, then the teaser's done it's job, but if you want to, you can still scrutinise it in search of easter eggs. That was an option that's since been rescinded. Director Zack Snyder came under fire for the last trailer that revealed one of the movie's major - at the time unconfirmed - villains. It's okay, he insisted afterwards, he wanted to “give him to the audience now. (opens in new tab)” Shouldn’t viewers get to make that call? Whether you wanted to know or not, Doomsday's appearance is no longer a surprise. One disgruntled fan took it upon themselves to cut together a version of the trailer that erases Doomsday altogether (opens in new tab). Another compiled a 10-minute chronological supercut (opens in new tab) of the movie based on all the footage released to date. It's not as bad as the 25-minute supercut of pre-released material for The Amazing Spider-Man (opens in new tab), but it’s not far off.
So what's the alternative? Warner Bros' comic book competitors 20th Century Fox rocked the hell out of Deadpool's marketing. It was a riotous campaign (opens in new tab), undoubtedly, but the point here is that maintaining a fun, spoiler-free strategy is not only possible - it's a way to help decimate numerous box office records (opens in new tab).
Okay, so Deadpool reached saturation point and then some. For a few weeks, the movie and the Merc were everywhere - but if you think back, the plot remained hidden. Dawn of Justice is reaching a similar point of ubiquity with the big difference being we already know a lot about what happens in the movie. The funny thing about this comparison is that Deadpool was a bigger gamble for a studio. Outside of comic book fandom, Deadpool isn’t a household name, so it might have been understandable had Fox decided to reveal more in previews. Batman and Superman have been well known for decades, and come with oodles of recognition. Who needs to be sold on the nitty gritty of this particular story? Isn’t it cool enough that two of the world’s most iconic superheroes are going to pummel each other? Deadpool goes to show that you can push TV spots at every available opportunity and slap posters all over town without spilling secrets. And when you have Bruce and Kal-El, whose vast histories are just gagging to be mined for publicity material, giving up plot details seems gratuitous.
With the Cloverfield campaign, the big push to recoup budgets doesn't come at the cost of audiences enjoying a real cinema experience. Abrams delights in keeping a lid on his 'mystery box (opens in new tab)', a wonderment he shares with the audience, knowing that they will turn out for the opportunity to become active participants in cracking an enigma. Everything about it is geared toward a community of moviegoers who recoil from being spoonfed every single revelation before they take their seats. Because where's the joy in knowing every twist and turn, when you can gaze at a gigantic bronze head tumbling down a New York City street and wonder: what the hell threw that?