After The Cloverfield Paradox’s unprecedented release, a look at where the franchise can go from here with its marketing and distribution.

The Cloverfield franchise doesn’t play by the rules. Back in 2008, a lack of concrete information about the mysterious monster movie whipped up fervor among online film fans. A cryptic teaser trailer arrived the summer before attached to Transformers. A Comic-Con panel later that month gave more questions than answers, and it wasn’t until the second trailer just two months before release that the title was confirmed. Meanwhile, eagle-eyed fans scoured a labyrinthine viral marketing campaign that included fictionalized company websites and MySpace pages. Fast-forward to 2016, and the first trailer for blood relative follow-up 10 Cloverfield Lane was held back until less than two months before release. The ashes of the first film’s ARG (alternate reality game) were rekindled with new information regarding the second film’s characters.

Mere weeks ago, The Cloverfield Paradox took things to the next level. “God Particle,” as it had been known, was another spec script that franchise mastermind J.J. Abrams retrofitted to be a “Cloververse” film. The results weren’t as seamless as they had been in 10 Cloverfield Lane. That and the inflated budget ($45m, as opposed to $25m and $15m) made Julius Onah’s film a cause for concern for Paramount. Less than a month ago, rumors began to swirl regarding a possible deal with streaming giant Netflix. They would take the film off of the studio’s hands, ensuring the books were balanced without relying on the fickle theatergoing public. It seemed a feasible scenario, particularly since Paramount had recently struck a similar deal with the streaming service for Alex Garland’s trippy Ex Machina follow-up, Annihilation.

But few people were prepared for the whirlwind that followed. As the world was watching the Eagles fend off the Patriots in Super Bowl LII, a 30-second teaser trailer dropped for the new film. Not only did it hint at the space-based action and confirm the title, but it also announced that the film would be available to stream on Netflix right after the game. It’s as daring a piece of marketing as I can think of, but where on earth (or off it) does one of the most unique movie franchise around go from here? Twitter jokes about J.J. chucking the Cloverfield 4 Blu-ray through your window may not be too far off.

Theatrical

Vitally, the word on the street is that Paramount intends for future Clover films to be released theatrical, but how much room is there for further experimentation within those age-old constraints? They could run an even later advertising campaign than Cloverfield Lane. The Internet was abuzz when Solo: A Star Wars Story’s first trailer dropped three and a half months before release. That should help contextualize Cloverfield Lane’s wild two-month marketing blitz. In theory that could be condensed to six weeks or even a month or less, but a Paradox-style on-the-day reveal would be nigh on impossible with theater listings and Hollywood’s emphasis on the make-or-break opening weekend.

Another possibility would be to advertise a future installment as a normal movie and then reveal the Clover connection just before release. This would be a mammoth task, though. Insiders leaked the possible God Particle-Cloverfield link nearly a year and a half ago. Likewise, we already know that the upcoming “Overlord” is set to be Cloverfield 4 and predictions continue to fly in about part 5 and beyond. Every new project from Abrams’ Bad Robot production company, sci-fi or otherwise, will be scrupulously dissected for franchise potential. This makes a last-minute Cloverfield reveal highly unlikely.

New Media

Let’s break down the theatrical walls a bit. Paradox’s release may have an irreversible effect on the franchise. It’s arguably the first film to use Netflix to its full potential. The streaming service marketed Bright, their closest approximation of a Hollywood blockbuster and the biggest Netflix Original film to date, in much the same way as a major studio’s action fantasy tentpole. A teaser trailer aired during last year’s Oscars ceremony, a massive ten months before the film’s Christmas release. The middle finger of a platform aside, that’s similar to most Hollywood’s behemoths. Further trailers followed throughout the year, as did posters, stills, clips, featurettes, soundtrack albums, billboards… you get the idea.

The opening weekend is incidental to Netflix in the grand scheme of things, but this conventional marketing run did attract 11 million pairs of eyeballs across the film’s opening weekend. Quality notwithstanding, the only major difference between Bright and a major studio’s franchise play is the fact that you don’t have to leave the house or pay inflated ticket prices for the former.

The Cloverfield Paradox made full use of Netflix’s position. Without a spoiler-filled marketing marathon or negative reviews to put them off, Super Bowl viewers could switch over to Netflix once the final ball was thrown and they had a brand new, water cooler-friendly franchise blockbuster to watch. For once, general audiences didn’t feel behind the times not knowing that Cloverfield 3 existed and they likely felt empowered that they could start the conversation, rather than joining a pre-ordained cultural discussion — although that power is not to be abused. That is something unachievable for any platform beyond the very biggest streaming services.

And, once Netflix has been done, there’s no chance direct-to-DVD/Blu-ray is going to happen. That would be countless steps back. Other options include a simultaneous release, with the film playing in theaters on the same day as it’s available to watch at home. This would likely involve premium VOD (paid rentals from the likes of iTunes etc.), as opposed to Netflix, to bring some financial parity between a trip to the theater and movie night at home. But all signs point to the biggest theater chains boycotting a day-and-date release like that, and I doubt even the clout of Abrams or the Cloverfield name would do much to convince them.

Smaller chains and independent theaters are a different matter. With more loyal clientele and more room to experiment away from corporate conservatism, smaller theaters may get behind a simultaneous release such as this. Another approach — utilized for the likes of Ti West’s The House of the Devil back in ‘09, but untested for a movie anything like the size of a Clover picture — is a reverse release with a VOD premiere, followed by theatrical engagements a month or so later. This will only be viable if a future installment is really good. There’s no chance I would schlep out to the theater to watch The Cloverfield Paradox, but I might have done for Cloverfield or 10 Cloverfield Lane. This would allow for another mic drop announcement, but with the excitement of a theatrical release too. That being said, one imagines a limited release like this would be far too small fry for Abrams.

Beyond these mainstream platforms, a select few films have gone the route of uploading to a torrent site for a limited time. The theory being that viewers can sample the film for free in the hope that they might buy the film at a later date, tell their friends, and support the filmmakers’ next project. The primary purpose of a release such as this is to build a fan base for an indie release, but Cloverfield has already got that in the bag. In the end, is there another new distribution method on a large enough scale for a Cloververse film? Who knows, but, when most of the new distribution methods are away from the theaters, I can’t see much innovation in the theatrical sphere.

Another lesson to learn from Paradox is responsible budgeting. It’s conceivable — I’d say quite likely — that no Cloverfield film will ever earn more at the box office than the original’s $170m worldwide, so the financial investments need to be contained accordingly. Frugal production budgets and efficient, targeted marketing campaigns allow room for experimentation: both formally and with regards to distribution. Paradox relied on Netflix making a big financial play (reportedly $50m), and they may not make the same investment twice.

In just three films, Cloverfield has marked itself out as one of the most singular movie franchise around, but there’s now immense pressure for Abrams and co. to keep innovating. The Cloverfield Paradox may end up being the worst Cloververse film, but its audacious release will be very hard to top.

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