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Cloverfield and the problem of viral marketing

By Bert Ehrmann

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Fort Wayne Reader

2008-02-18


A few weeks back the “giant monster attacks New York” movie Cloverfield opened to huge numbers at the box office, earning over $40 million and the number one spot in its first week in release. Cloverfield opened so big that most assumed Paramount had another movie franchise on their hands and that a sequel would soon be in the works. Director Matt Reeves reportedly said of a sequel, “Only time will tell.”

Flash forward to the second week of release. Movie pundits predicted that Cloverfield would once again dominate the box office and retain its number one position. But Cloverfield dropped nearly 70% in ticket sales, earning just $13 million, beat out by a 300 spoof film, Rambo (part IV) and a Katherine Heigl comedy.

Things got worse in the third week. Cloverfield earned just under $5 million at the box office, beaten out by the Hannah Montana movie. (The solution to giant monsters attacking cities? Tween girls.)

I guess time did tell. What went wrong with Cloverfield?

Cloverfield is one of the first movies I’m aware of to be marketed extensively online and through viral means. Though other movies certainly used some limited viral marketing in the past, to learn almost anything about Cloverfield, fans would have to uncover hidden Web sites, translate text from other languages and discern subtleties of a few photos released through the official site.

And judging by the huge first week Cloverfield had, it seems as if this hidden marketing worked. The “movie-geeks” who had been following this online campaign flocked to the film on initial release and Cloverfield earned millions.

But there’s a catch with this new type of marketing: it leaves out one important segment of the movie-going public – everyone else.

Those who decide on what movie they’re going to see on a given weekend by reading the newspaper or via TV commercials had to have been more than a bit confused over exactly what Cloverfield was. The TV commercials of people running and screaming, explosions, and a lot of “shaky-cam” say nothing about the plot.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these trailers, tied with the TV commercials and poster of the Statue of Liberty sans-head, might lead some people to believe that Cloverfield was about terrorism in New York, since it’s never exactly spelled out in the marketing materials what’s going on.

I also found the lack of variety in the marketing a bit odd. Other than a few variations in the TV commercials and some text added to the poster, there wasn’t much difference between the first teaser marketing campaigns last summer to the final attempt to sell the film to the general public.

And let’s not forget the title of the film. Once you’ve seen Cloverfield you learn this is the codename of the beast used by the government/military. Though I’m sure that the “movie-geeks” who had been following the online campaign loved the fact that the title was a sort of inside joke, it doesn’t say anything about the movie to people who haven’t spent hours online researching it.

I can’t help thinking that even with this marketing scheme, if Cloverfield were truly a great movie then the opening weekend “movie-geeks” would have come back and brought along some of their non-geek friends.

The news isn’t all that bad for Cloverfield — the film reportedly cost $25 million, which was easily made back in its first week. That’s not counting foreign releases and all that’s going to be made when the movie is released on DVD later this year. E-mail me at words@dangerousuniverse.com.

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