Graham: Netflix stunt wins big game, then backfires

‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ is not the future of movies, but its surprise distribution is a game changer

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Netflix did it. Its next task is doing it with something better.

During Sunday’s Super Bowl, a trailer appeared for the third “Cloverfield” movie, titled “The Cloverfield Paradox,” and a kicker at the end of the short spot said the film was “coming very soon” to Netflix.

John Ortiz, left, David Oyelowo and Gugu Mbatha-Raw fight for survival aboard a space station in “The Cloverfield Paradox.”

OK, cool. “Coming very soon” probably meant later this month, or maybe even in a week. Great stunt. Back to the game, pass the cheese dip.

“Coming very soon” wasn’t the half of it, however. It was soon known that “very soon” meant right after the game, which elevated “The Cloverfield Paradox” from fun gimmick to movie industry paradigm shifter. On the biggest stage imaginable, Netflix went and pulled the movie business’ first Beyoncé.

Pulling a Beyoncé, of course, is the name given when a blockbuster project is unveiled to the public with little or no advance warning. The term was coined when American performer Beyoncé Knowles, on a Thursday night in December 2013, at or around midnight, released her self-titled fifth studio album in the iTunes Music Store, teased by a simple “surprise!” post from the singer’s Instagram. No advance singles, no advance teases, no advance anything. For a superstar of her ilk, it was unprecedented. In an instant, the game was changed.

Others followed, including Drake, Kendrick Lamar, U2 (they put their surprise album on your phone and have yet to fully recover from the backlash that followed) and, most notably Beyoncé herself, who on a Saturday night in April 2016 surprise-released “Lemonade” via an HBO special and went and changed the game all over again.

Music, which is chiefly released via digital distribution systems, lends itself to such surprise releases. The question was could the movie industry follow, and how? Musicians can hunker down in the studio with a producer and an engineer, hit ‘send’ and have their music out to the world instantaneously. Movies have a lot more moving parts. And with casting news, Hollywood trade reports, location shoots, crew members, extras, everything that goes into filming a movie, it’s almost impossible to keep a film production secret.

The hype economy is a huge part of the entertainment business. In the movie business, release dates are carved out years in advance, movie trailers are set up to build buzz, teaser trailers set up the buzz for the full trailers, and even teaser trailers are teased in advance. When hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake, it pays to get the word out keep it going for as long as possible.

That hype — musicians build it with singles and snippets of songs prior to an album’s relase — sets our expectations of projects and feeds into our enjoyment of them. Pulling a Beyoncé circumvents those expectations and removes hype from the equation, leveling the playing field and forcing one to judge a work on its own merit, free from preconceived notions.

Which is great when a project delivers. Beyoncé’s two surprise albums were fully formed artistic statements that stood on their own apart from the particulars of their release. The surprise element was simply the cherry on top of the sundae.

“The Cloverfield Paradox” didn’t deliver. A middling-at-best sci-fi blunder, its surprise element was more interesting than the film itself, making it feel more like a “gotcha!” than a pop culture revelation.

The lack of expectations for the film — fans had only a few hours to digest the short teaser trailer — meant its disappointment was leveled; it was hard to feel too burned by a movie that no one knew they’d be watching a few hours before. Still, by the time word got out the movie was a stiff — word was out on social media by midnight that night — Netflix’s game-winning touchdown felt like it was being called back for review.

Trailers and marketing tools can build hype, but it’s ultimately up to the project to deliver. And if it doesn’t, the build up is just that: build up. A distraction.

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