The ‘Cloverfield’ series has shown that original screenplays and major studio franchises are just one or two rewrites from a match made in heaven.
When it comes to franchise fatigue, J.J. Abrams‘s Cloverfield movies are the exception that proves the rule. What could have been a straightforward series of giant monster movies has morphed into a unique anthology series of cobbled-together screenplays; when news broke yesterday that Paramount’s long-gestating World War II thriller Overlord was, in fact, the fourth film in the series, fans reacted with a degree of enthusiasm not typically reserved for tentpole productions. Part of this was surprise – wily ol’ Abrams managed to slip another movie past the masses! – but dig a little deeper and you can see how hungry people are for intelligent anthology films. No matter what Cloverfield 3 and Cloverfield 4 may ultimately be, they won’t be anything like their predecessors, and that is welcome news in 2018.
The anthology series certainly isn’t a new idea. In a 2016 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Abrams pointed to popular television franchises like The Twilight Zone as examples of the sort of stories he was looking to tell on the big screen. Streaming platforms are currently littered with prestige anthology series; whether they’re talking about Fargo or American Horror Story, critics like Josef Adalian have pointed to the current wave of anthology shows as a perfect synthesis of format and medium, an opportunity for writers to differentiate themselves from their competition without worrying that audience would abandon ship only a few episodes in. Even the film industry has occasionally dabbled in the anthology series, with John Carpenter’s Halloween III standing out as an iconic – albeit failed – attempt to turn the familiar into the unfamiliar.
What separates the Cloverfields from other movies isn’t just that they’re anthology movies: it’s that they began life as something else entirely. 10 Cloverfield Lane, Dan Trachtenberg’s popular follow-up to J.J. Abrams’s original film, began its Hollywood life as The Cellar, an original screenplay written by Josh Campbell & Matt Stuecken (and subsequently rewritten by Damien Chazelle). The God Particle, the oft-delayed third film in the series, was another struggling spec script by Oren Uziel before it was folded into the Cloverfield universe. Back in May, Uziel spoke with Collider about the process of retrofitting his script as a blockbuster franchise movie, and he seemed pretty amiable about the whole process, noting that, in an industry where it’s become “harder and harder to market an original movie of any kind,” the ability to pin his film to J.J. Abrams’s movies was a welcome reprieve for his script.
Then there’s Overlord. While it would probably be a stretch to say news of Overlord‘s Cloverfield connection came as a complete surprise – these days, any film mentioned in the same breath as Bad Robot is assumed to be part of the broader Cloverfield universe – Overlord still stands as proof of how far afield Abrams and company are willing to go with their anthology series. It’s not just the subject matter, either. A year ago, Variety noted that Overlord was originally purchased by Paramount back in 2007, pre-dating the theatrical release of the original Cloverfield by more than a year. This proves that Abrams and his team are casting a wide net when it comes to possible Cloverfield movies, unearthing high-concept genre screenplays and carefully adding some minor connective tissues for monsters and Japanese technology firms. If your screenplay is good – even if it’s more than a decade old – there is a chance it may see the light of day as a Cloverfield sequel.
This serialization of scripts couldn’t come at a better time for writers, either. Just a few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times published a much-ballyhooed eulogy to the Hollywood spec script, claiming that one of Hollywood’s most dependable sources of new ideas was a well that had since gone dry. And if that’s a little too dramatic for your tastes, then try this 2013 article in Vanity Fair which traces the rise and fall of the spec script in Hollywood. Framed against a pair of Hollywood writers’ strikes, Margaret Heidenry’s article points to the trend of studios to favor licensed properties over original stories as part of the industry’s risk-averse approach to filmmaking. While Heidenry saw (at the time) some room for optimism in the fact that spec sales had risen from 55 in 2005 to 96 in 2012, Scott Myers has put the number of spec scripts sold in 2016 at 75 – not to mention 55 as recently as 2015. The spec script is not gone, perhaps, but is certainly in a position of diminished power from its lucrative Shane Black glory days.
Which brings us back to Cloverfield. Given the tension between Hollywood’s need for familiar licenses and fresh ideas, this concept – taking spec screenplays and tweaking them so they fit within an established Hollywood franchise – seems to be the best way to kill two birds with one stone. One of the biggest criticisms of the Star Wars anthology films is their penchant for reverse-engineering stories: they figure out which characters and backstories are appealing to fans and fill in the pieces around it until a new movie exists. Would a Star Wars movie that began life as a standalone science-fiction screenplay have more to offer fans? If Sony’s X-Men franchise can support dystopian westerns (Logan) and psychological thrillers (The New Mutants), is it really such a big leap to take an unproduced superhero screenplay and give it a light Xavier theme?
With declining box office numbers and increased skepticism towards tentpole projects, Hollywood is in a position where it needs to try something new or risk repeating the mistakes of the past few years. And if we assume that the studio system will never abandon franchise sequels and prequels entirely, then perhaps its time for producers to toy with the idea of letting very good, very abandoned screenplays find a second life as a pretty good Star Wars or Marvel movie. The Cloverfield franchise has proven how hungry fans are for something that feels new; time for some ambitious executives to start crawling The Black List to find the next screenplay to turn into the tentpole of tomorrow.