How ‘Cloverfield’ Reinvented Movie Fandom in the Internet Age

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When the lights dimmed on audiences munching popcorn in preparation for Michael Bay’s first attempt at a Transformers movie, they were surprised by Handicam images of a house party thrown into chaos, a massive explosion on a crowded city block, and the Statue of Liberty’s head flying through the streets of Brooklyn. It was confusing. Intriguing. The trailer hadn’t even mentioned the name of the movie. This was the first teaser for Cloverfield.

They banked on that visual capturing our imaginations, and the gamble paid off big. It turns out that using the kind of marketing which typically belongs on highway billboards hawking roadside attractions (“What IS The Thing?!”) was the key to hooking an online audience. When Cloverfield revealed itself as a great movie and not a mummified mole-rat with jackalope antlers stapled to it, the studio had a winning combination on its hands. The movie itself featured even more mysteries to solve and clues to discover, which fed back into the viral marketing, which fueled even more conversation about the movie. It was a self-perpetuating interest machine, and one of the first major movies to genuinely exploit social media to do its word-of-mouth bidding.

Cloverfield also became a patriarch of modern fandom by subverting standard genre tropes. It celebrated the monster movies that came before it while offering something shaky and new. It applied a dulling found-footage method to a sharp Drew Goddard script that made us care about the characters, because we barely ever got to see the CGI-suited baddie. And the entire thing was laced with subtle hints and random elements that might or might not have had anything to do with the core mystery of the monster’s origins.

Still from “Cloverfield.”

People had to see it multiple times to catch details, and sheer name recognition percolated outside the Internet bubble to propel the film to box office popularity. In an all-or-nothing play, Paramount and Abrams had crafted a secret-club sensibility to caring about Cloverfield, and the result was the rarest thing of all: a January blockbuster.

A few months later, Iron Man would introduce the tangled web of the Marvel universe — the most obvious benefactor/utilizer of online, detail-obsessed fandom — but Cloverfield proved early that you could produce mouth-foaming anticipation for something that people had never heard of before. Iron Man was already in the zeitgeist. The Cloverfield monster had to earn our interest by refusing to come out from behind tall buildings.

Abrams and Paramount head Amy Powell recognized a growing number of committed fans and energized that base in a way that has informed countless subsequent franchise movies. Yet Cloverfield was also able to do things that no franchise entry could dream of: It was greenlit and filmed in relative secrecy, entirely sidestepping the emergent scoop industry (which is even more unthinkable now).

Michael Stahl-David, Lizzy Caplan, and Jessica Lucas in “Cloverfield.”

It was able to do so specifically because of what some studios would consider its limitations. It was monster movie with no movie stars, an unknown director, and a monster no one had ever heard of (or seen). And it wasn’t trying to reboot a franchise – though that didn’t stop people from speculating that it did. Theories ranged widely, from Godzilla to Voltron to a LOST spinoff to, no kidding, a live-action ThunderCats (because someone thought they heard “It’s a Lion!” in a trailer). That misheard line and rampant speculation underscore the Abrams Effect: When you withhold information from the hungry, they’ll invent their own.

This obsessive truth has become a hallmark of modern film fandom. You can watch a movie, sure, but you’re only getting half the experience if you don’t religiously collect the interactive breadcrumbs leading up to its release. Sure, there were viral campaigns before (all hail Blair Witch), but Cloverfield created a playbook that other properties like The Dark Knight and District 9 would soon follow, morphing Alternate Reality Games into complex movie marketing. Fans loved “Cloverfield: The Collective Experience” before they loved “Cloverfield: The Movie,” and the success of that marketing method ballooned over the last decade. Fast-forward to millions of people buying BB-8 toys months before The Force Awakens came out.

Speculation is now the first act of many blockbuster movies. What does that video of an oil rig being destroyed have to do with the movie? What will Spider-Man’s suit look like? Who is Jena Malone playing in her cut Batman v Superman scenes? Naturally, Abrams is repeating his original recipe by Beyoncé-ing 10 Cloverfield Lane with limited marketing and a large pile of question marks, and it’s hard to blame him. After all, Cloverfield helped propel the modern age of fandom by going big – and keeping quiet.

A ten-year veteran of cultural writing, Scott Beggs’ work has appeared at Vanity Fair, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, and IndieWire. He’s the co-host of The Broken Projector.