Why Netflix Wouldn’t Pull a Surprise Like ‘Cloverfield Paradox’ Again

“#FilmTwitter is going to explode tonight,” director Ava DuVernay tweeted on Feb. 4, 2018, just minutes before kick-off for Super Bowl LII. “Something is coming that I can hardly believe. Lawd. History in the making.”

A little over an hour later, the world found out what the celebrated director and producer was referring to. During a commercial break, Netflix premiered the first footage of “The Cloverfield Paradox,” a science-fiction thriller that had originally sported the enigmatic title “God Particle,” spurring online speculation on its potential ties to the “Cloverfield” franchise. What’s more, the splashy ad was capped with a mic drop moment — the film would be available to stream immediately after the game.

Super Bowl commercial breaks are the notorious premier real estate of the ad market (in 2018, a 30-second time slot was reportedly valued at upwards of $5 million). It’s become an annual tradition for studios to use the event to introduce their upcoming blockbuster hopefuls to the public. This year, big trailers for “Fast X,” “The Flash,” “Air” and several more titles are all tied to football’s biggest night.

But Netflix took that tradition a step further with “The Cloverfield Paradox,” enticing viewers with a name-brand curiosity and the promise of near-instant fulfillment. There was no need to brainstorm an activity for your Super Bowl party cooldown — Netflix had you covered.

“The Cloverfield Paradox” followed in the cryptic marketing tradition of the original 2008 found-footage “Cloverfield” (which filmed a teaser before even beginning principal production) and its 2016 sleeper hit sequel “10 Cloverfield Lane,” a single-location thriller that effectively announced that a “Cloverfield” entry could come in just about any form. The Super Bowl teaser played as a series of callbacks to the first “Cloverfield,” along with space station catastrophes and an ominous distress call by an astronaut played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

The commercial was quite a flex for Netflix, the dominant streamer at the time.

“This was very much the point at which some of the studios started looking very seriously at launching their own competitive service,” says Richard Cooper, a research director at market researcher Ampere Analysis.

Yet the release of “The Cloverfield Paradox” was reported as a mixed success at best. According to Nielsen data at the time, about 785,000 people viewed “The Cloverfield Paradox” on the night of its debut, with roughly 2.8 million viewing over the first three days. It’s a sizable audience, but it was far from measuring up to “Bright,” the gnarly crime fantasy movie starring Will Smith, which nabbed 11 million Netflix viewers in the same three-day launch window only two months earlier.

A largely negative critical reception didn’t help. There were plenty of reasons to be excited for “The Cloverfield Paradox,” an entry in a hip genre franchise with a reputation for inventive surprises. Along with Mbatha-Raw, the film sported a diverse cast of celebrated but under-the-radar talents, including David Oyelowo, Elizabeth Debicki and Zhang Ziyi. The film also represented a premier feature from a rising Black filmmaker, Julius Onah, who had the public support of figures like DuVernay and J.J. Abrams. But critics chalked up the entry as a forgettable disappointment. In Variety’s review, chief film critic Owen Gleiberman was outright dismissive, saying that “it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not, and even harder to care.”

Paramount, which produced the first two “Cloverfield” films, had initially set a theatrical release for the follow-up. But the film’s $40 million-plus production budget reportedly left questions about its potential profitability. Paramount’s problem represented a unique opportunity for Netflix, which reportedly paid upwards of $50 million for streaming rights to the film.

With a brief ad planted in front of the year’s biggest television audience, the streamer effectively transformed a project that most of the public had not even heard of into an exclusive event. The ad reaffirmed the clout that Netflix held among consumers — a more valuable achievement than successfully promoting the film itself.

“This was a bold statement on the part of Netflix that it could still acquire fairly significant titles, major franchises — and that they could launch films and still make a big success of it,” Cooper says.

While surprise drops are fair game in the music industry — a Beyoncé album can suddenly appear when it wasn’t on anyone’s radar one week earlier — it’s not a popular move in the movie business, which relies on building buzz over weeks or months. Netflix has dabbled in fast turnarounds in the years since, notably last year, when a secret bonus episode of “The Sandman” released weeks after the show’s initial debut. But feature films represent sizable financial investments that need to generate enough chatter to justify their price tags.

“There needs to be a good deal more awareness in order to build anticipation. This is something which does drive subscribers to a service — anticipation that they’re going to be able to watch these things,” Richard says. “Even dropping ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ in the way that they did doesn’t fuel that level of anticipation.”

For a streaming service, an unreleased film can hold even more value than an available one. By planting a flag on a release date, streamers provide an incentive for users to remain subscribed to their service. Last year, Netflix reported its first ever loss in subscribers in a financial quarter, effectively launching the industry into a tailspin as the longterm potential of streaming was reassessed. Now, retention of subscribers is more imperative for these services than ever before — release dates and teasers give users a reason to stick around.

“It’s very unlikely that streamers will do it again with features,” Cooper says. “You’ve got to make as much noise as possible.”

Five years later, “The Cloverfield Paradox” is nary a blip in the industry’s rearview mirror. Netflix has continued to advertise during the Super Bowl, though its commercials serve more as branding exercises rather than promotions of individual productions. Last year’s sizzle reel teased releases for movies like “The Gray Man,” “Me Time,” “The School for Good and Evil” and a spotlight on “The Adam Project.”

Onah effectively rebounded with his well-regarded 2019 Sundance drama “Luce” and has since been tapped by Marvel Studios to helm “Captain America: New World Order,” starring Anthony Mackie. Meanwhile, after a period of dormancy, there’s a new “Cloverfield” movie in the works at Paramount.

It’s been half of a decade and the Philadelphia Eagles have made it back to the Super Bowl again. But “The Cloverfield Paradox” is still available to stream on Netflix. It hasn’t gone anywhere.

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