Does 10 Cloverfield Lane Signal the Future of Original Sci-Fi?

By  · Published on March 14th, 2016

If we consider 10 Cloverfield Lane to be a success, then it’s a success for original sci-fi movies in general. The movie opened to a decent $25m over the weekend, and that’s surely a positive for Paramount, which paid about half that much to produce the feature and little more for marketing. And that’s not bad for a little genre thriller primarily set in a single location and starring relatively small names. The movie drew crowds to something fresh and well-made, which isn’t easy in this era of mega-franchises and rehashes that aren’t always concerned with delivering good product so much as a familiar supply for the demand.

The interesting and possibly problematic thing about 10 Cloverfield Lane is that it was sold to the crowds as a branded product. Although an original story, its title was changed from The Cellar (and its production title of Valencia) in order to align it with the 2008 movie Cloverfield. The idea is to turn the word “Cloverfield” into an anthology brand, a la The Twilight Zone, rather than to force a narrative link between movies (something it could teach the Marvel Cinematic Universe). With this idea, Paramount could release a lot more original sci-fi under this banner and be more certain that it won’t go ignored by moviegoers.

There are plenty of issues to see in this model. 10 Cloverfield Lane clearly attracted some audiences who expected an actual Cloverfield sequel. Their disappointment can be seen all over the internet as well as in the B- grade at Cinemascore. Paramount didn’t do a proper job selling the movie’s branding as just that. It didn’t play up the promise of a whole series of original works linked only in name through an anthology banner. Sure, the title wasn’t Cloverfield 2, and if it were a direct sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane is an odd title to give to it. But most people don’t think of that sort of thing. The word “cloverfield” was enough to mislead them.

Other options Paramount could have done to make it clearer include a different titling strategy. Disney has it right with their upcoming Star Wars anthology, the first of which is now called Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. And even then the studio is definitely going to have to deal with fans who mistake that “standalone” feature for a direct sequel to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But something like The Cellar: A Cloverfield Movie would have been more truthful in what it is. They couldn’t go the other way and do Cloverfield: The Cellar, unfortunately. Only Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colors trilogy) was able to get away with that sort of anthology branding.

Isn’t what’s going on with the Cloverfield idea just a matter of lumping likeminded titles into a brand name shingle, though? There used to be a certain expectation of quality and genre with the studios themselves. Later, producers and their companies could be depended on for a particular tone and type of movie. J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot production house used to be enough of a stamp on something (see our post on the then-title-less The Cellar from 2012). Like Amblin back in the day and Blumhouse to a degree today. Unfortunately they all expand and branch out at some point. Paramount has tried a lot of in-studio shingles, too, from MTV Films to Vantage to Insurge, and none matter as such to the general audience.

The irony of the Cloverfield situation is that the first movie is also original sci-fi and was a much bigger hit, at least in its opening weekend. The movie took in $40m ($49m adjusted for inflation), which wound up being about half its final domestic total. And unless word of mouth is really great on 10 Cloverfield Lane, it too will see a substantial drop in subsequent weeks, and with only half as much to begin with. That doesn’t sound like it’s worth too much excitement, even if it also cost half as much as the first movie. Sure, it’s better business than, say, Ex Machina, but it’s also not some no-name-cast indie that would have been buried without the branding.

Consider the openings of other recent original sci-fi movies put out by Hollywood that have been deemed box office disappointments and therefore bad news for the genre, at least on a certain scale of production and distribution. There are the Tom Cruise vehicles Oblivion ($37m) and Edge of Tomorrow ($29m), Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium ($30m) and Chappie ($13m) plus the Will Smith starrer After Earth ($28m), Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim ($37m), Disney’s Tomorrowland ($33m), the Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending ($18m) and the pre-Deadpool Ryan Reynolds starer Self/Less ($5m).

Last year’s bunch (Jupiter/Chappie/Tomorrowland/Self-Less) were markedly worse than usual but otherwise overall there’s been a fairly consistent range of debut grosses, with 10 Cloverfield Lane falling right in the center. Disregard what any of them specifically cost, because that doesn’t matter too much for ticket buyers. If anything, it’s the films with A-list movie stars such as Cruise and Smith that are unsurprisingly the ones with a slight edge as far as appealing to moviegoers. It’s difficult to be sure, but 10 Cloverfield Lane probably could have done just as well (or not well, depending on your outlook) without the Cloverfield branding.

In theory, if marketed better as such, an umbrella brand like Cloverfield is a great thing for fans of original sci-fi looking for a consistent level of creativity and overall quality. Who wouldn’t want something like Black Mirror for the big screen? But the success of something like 10 Cloverfield Lane specifically is a matter of it being marketed well regardless. Not with trickery in the titling or what sort of tone or visuals are presented in trailers, and the thing about 10 Cloverfield Lane is it has enough mystery to easily be sold on its intrigue.

If the movie was a bigger box office hit this weekend and if it was received better from people who were baited by the name and could have been wowed by what they were actually given, I’d say 10 Cloverfield Lane was a signal for the future of original sci-fi. There’s no reason to call it a mistake, either, but it wasn’t necessarily a great success. Hollywood would be better off truly working on brand recognition for underlying elements like “A J.J. Abrams production” rather than trying for franchising in a way that’s confusing. Sadly the “from the people who brought you…” angle became untrustworthy long ago.

NEXT: 15 Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Movies of 2015

Right now, Paramount and the industry is seeing 10 Cloverfield Lane as a success, whether it’s because of the name-recognition strategy or not. But hopefully they think deeper about it before the next installment of the Cloverfield brand. Rumor has it that Bad Robot’s upcoming original sci-fi film currently titled God Particle will wind up renamed something like Cloverfield Station, since it’s set on a space station. By its release next year, everyone will hopefully get the Cloverfield deal and not be misled, but what if it just went out as God Particle: Another Cloverfield Type Thing? It’s worth a try.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.