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The Cloverfield Effect - The Then and Now of Viral Trailer Hype

8 years ago, when J.J. Abrams was still best known for LOST, he teamed up with up-and-coming director Matt Reeves to produce Cloverfield, a flawed yet entertaining found-footage movie featuring a massive ugly frog monster ripping apart Manhattan and making Janis Ian's head explode. I think that's what was going on, anyway, I just remember a lot of shaking and heavy breathing. Perhaps the most notable thing about the film was its inspired viral marketing, as even the title of the film remained shrouded in mystery up until about a month prior to release.

Initially, all we were offered was one trailer, which only used footage from the first 20-or-so minutes of the film, revealed little to no plot and used the film's release date in place of a title. It was perhaps the first instance of a film trailer being banded about across Facebook and Twitter with people rampantly trying to figure out what it was all about. Social media became a storm of theory as people tried to figure out which franchise, if any, the film tied into. Suggestions ranged from LOST to Godzilla to the Japanese Voltron series, by dint of a line of dialogue ("it's alive!") being misheard in the trailer ("it's a lion!").

Ultimately, we still don't actually know if Cloverfield directly ties into anything else (there is one noticeable reference to the Dharma Initiative from LOST at the start, but that's all). More to the point, all the major characters received MySpace profiles, as the platform was still prevalent at the time, and said profiles all contained little morsels of evidence about what the true nature of the film was. There were also two fictional companies - the 'Slusho!' soft drink label and the Japanese Tangruato scientific collective. All of this played into a wider meta-universe that allowed Cloverfield to extend far beyond its cinematic limits. At the time, it was a huge leap forward.

The only problem? The film didn't live up to its promises. It was entertaining, but ultimately failed to deliver on the intriguing mysteries woven by the ad campaign, and when the dust settled and the credits had rolled, the only questions it really answered were - 'what was attacking New York?' and 'What became of all those beautiful twentysomethings?' The answers were 'a big monster' and 'it ate everybody', respectively.

Now though, we're getting a second shot at finding answers. J.J. Abrams has risen to staggering heights since Cloverfield, having now directed new installments in both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. I know we've all kind of gotten used to that now, but come on, really think about how crazy that is. Anyway, at the end of last week he proved that he can still surprise us by dropping a trailer for a sequel called 10 Cloverfield Lane starring John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, slated for a March release.

Once again, we're given almost nothing to go on, 3 characters (relation undetermined) are in a bunker, getting along, then they stop getting along and Winstead's character tries to get outside while Goodman desperately tries to stop her. The implication is that there's something awful out there, but what it is, and why they're forced to remain underground, is left unclear. The only other thing we have to go on is what happened in the previous film, but there's no evidence as to whether this film takes place before, after or during its predecessor. There's a definite retro vibe to the bunker, somewhere in the region of the 1980s, but that could easily be a complete misdirect. The more interesting thing is, how has social media film marketing changds since 2008, and how does this new trailer reflect that?

Well, the ambiguity follows more or less the exact same pathway, the only difference is that fan theories reach a much wider audience than they used to. Whereas before no title was revealed, this time the title is the only thing that actually links it to the previous film, otherwise it could just be a standalone thriller. Instead of the fan theories trying to figure out if this ties to a franchise, that's the one piece of key information we already have, what matters is figuring out how. All of the meta-universe stuff is still up and running, which might well have been the intent all along, what will be interesting to observe over the next few weeks is whether any new content will start to appear. You can see the meta-story so far in this useful roundup that Hitfix have kindly compiled.

I suppose, at the stage we're at with this at the moment, all it really demonstrates is that you really don't need to do that much to push the hype train out of the station anymore. 10 Cloverfield Lane is being characterised by the studio as a 'blood relative' of the original rather than a direct continuation of the narrative. What that says to me, is that it won't be the last film to come out under the banner, and that eventually, the entire narrative will become apparent, split into fragments across different platforms, with social media acting as the glue which ties it all together, a global water cooler.

If anything, the comparison speaks for just how much audiences love to be given a mystery to untangle, and that hype has become its own form of storytelling, tied to other formats, yet distinct from them. The appeal of the Serial podcast, and Netflix's Making a Murderer don't just come from their production values, or the stories they chronicle, it comes from the way they leave the audience to draw so many of their own conclusions. Appeal is measured through reaction, reaction is filtered through discussion, and discussion happens on social media.

Fundamentally, 10 Cloverfield Lane might just be a great standalone premise slapped with a franchise tag to increase its marquee appeal, but if Abrams and the studio have any sense, they will use it as a means to revitalise a franchise which never took full advantage of its potential.

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop. Follow him @CallumAtSMF

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The Cloverfield Effect - The Then and Now of Viral Trailer Hype Reviewed by Unknown on Friday, January 22, 2016 Rating: 5

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