Creature feature’s stealth campaign

Times Staff Writer

Hollywood has mastered the art of over-promising and under-delivering, with “Superman Returns” being a handy recent example. With this weekend’s alien-invasion movie “Cloverfield,” Paramount Pictures hopes to turn that equation on its ear.

Few movies outside of the latest “Star Wars” sequels have been made and promoted with such secrecy -- even when it came to something as simple as “Cloverfield’s” real name. To throw off Internet snoops during production, the film was sequentially called “Slusho,” “Chocolate Outrage” and “Cheese.” To create further mystery at last year’s Comic-Con convention, different posters for the film were labeled either “Terrifying,” “Monstrous” or “Furious.”

When the first trailer for “Cloverfield” (the name comes from a street near producer J.J. Abrams’ offices) debuted with last summer’s “Transformers,” there was no title for the movie anywhere.

“From the beginning, the whole conceit was don’t say anything to anyone -- keep it invisible,” Abrams says.


Actors who auditioned for the film -- and even crew members who worked on the project -- never saw a complete script. When the film was previewed last week to students at Michigan State and Florida State, the security was just a notch below LAX during a red risk level.

“We wanted to come in under the radar -- and let people discover it,” says the film’s director, Matt Reeves. “In a way, it was like movie advertising from another era.”

“Cloverfield” is a throwback itself too: an old-fashioned monster movie with some high-tech special effects. When “Lost” producer Abrams pitched the idea to Paramount production chief Brad Weston, the idea was to bring a “Blair Witch” sensibility to a Hollywood staple that includes “The Blob,” “The War of the Worlds” and the Japanese “Godzilla” series. But rather than make a budget-busting star vehicle, Abrams wanted to make a $25-million movie with unknowns.

The movie begins at a going-away party for Rob, who is headed to Japan as part of a job promotion. Rob (Michael Stahl-David) has recently fallen for his longtime platonic partner Beth (Odette Yustman), but the feeling may not be mutual, creating some awkward moments for Hud (T.J. Miller), who is videotaping the party as a keepsake for Rob.

Hud’s camera is recording Rob and Beth’s knotty relationship when a horrible attack hits New York City. The Statue of Liberty is decapitated, the Brooklyn Bridge ruptured, the Woolworth Building destroyed. Before long, a giant creature is laying waste to all of Manhattan, with Hud’s camera taking it all in.

As demonstrated by all the fake titles, the film’s makers have constructed “Cloverfield’s” marketing campaign around ambiguity and concealment. The thinking has always been strategic: Determined to get his teaser trailer on Paramount’s “Transformers,” Reeves wrote and shot footage for the preview before he had even started production on the film.

And unlike how Sony handled its giant lizard in its “Godzilla” remake and Universal its oversized simian in its “King Kong” update, Paramount has kept its movie monster in the shadows of pre-release advertising. “It undercuts the experience if you’ve been exposed to too much of it,” the director says.

As a consequence, YouTube users have posted frame-by-frame analyses of “Cloverfield” trailers, bringing a Zapruder-like scrutiny (and free publicity) to Hollywood horror. “We never expected the trailer to get the kind of response it did,” Reeves says. “And then the response was, ‘We better shut up because the movie is such a long way out.’ We had to hold back -- or people would be sick of us.”


In not revealing the film’s existence until the June “Transformers” trailer and its actual title until November’s “Beowulf,” the studio has carefully built up audience interest with little new information, even while maintaining the illusion that the movie represents some government-discovered video. (Fearful that footage or plot twists would leak out from research screenings, Paramount held none; director Reeves got his creative feedback from friends and family.)

“What I was desperate to do was give people that exciting feeling of discovery,” Abrams says. “And that has been so undone with publicity and pre-publicity.” So there were no set visits by the press, no announcements in the Hollywood trades, no “making-of” TV specials or behind-the-scenes newspaper stories.

“You could never pull this off with ‘I Am Legend,’ because you could never hire Will Smith and have no one know it,’ ” says Rob Moore, Paramount’s vice chairman. “We wanted to create a sense of ‘What is it? I want more information.’ We did not want to pay off in the marketing campaign what we want people to discover in the movie.”

Audience tracking surveys show that young males are very interested in the film, but it’s unclear if they will be able to bring their girlfriends along or have to split up at the concession stand.


That’s because Fox’s “27 Dresses” is also opening Friday, and the Katherine Heigl romantic comedy is drawing strong support from younger and older women. Overture’s debut feature, the Diane Keaton crime comedy “Mad Money,” is appealing to older women primarily.

The highest-grossing Martin Luther King Jr. holiday release is 2001’s “Black Hawk Down,” which took in $28.6 million. But that film was rated R (“Cloverfield” is PG-13), and comparisons to “The Grudge” (which opened with $39.1 million in 2004 against little opposition) seem more fitting. “Cloverfield” will probably gross about $36 million over the four-day weekend and be the No. 1 film. In second will be “27 Dresses,” and “Mad Money” probably fourth, behind holdover “The Bucket List.”

What’s not in doubt is that the “Cloverfield” campaign has been distinctive, creating pent-up demand by only teasing at what really happens in the film. And just as Abrams created end-of-season cliffhangers on “Alias” and “Lost,” he, Reeves and Paramount have done the same thing with “Cloverfield’s” ad campaign.

“To me,” Abrams says, “the cliffhanger is as good as it gets. It’s the best dramatic device.”