David Oyelowo spent a decent chunk of 2016 playing a space-station commander named Kiel in a then untitled sci-fi movie for producer J.J. Abrams. The actor was as shocked as the rest of the TV-viewing public on Sunday to discover that the film, now named The Cloverfield Paradox, would be released on Netflix that evening.
Oyelowo and the rest of the film’s cast, which includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw,Daniel Bruhl,Elizabeth Debicki,Chris O’Dowd, and Zhang Ziyi, found out about the release, and the film’s new title, on a conference call with Abrams a few hours before the Super Bowl. In possibly the blitziest marketing campaign Hollywood had ever seen, Netflix, which had acquired the movie, was going to air two 30-second trailers costing $5 million a pop during the game’s broadcast on NBC. The movie would then be available to its 117 million worldwide subscribers as soon as the game ended.
“It was shocking, exciting, surprising, and mind-blowing,” Oyelowo said Wednesday from London, where he is now promoting the film. “In an age where everyone is trying desperately to corral the very distracted mass audience’s attention, to have a film that most people I know had seen within 24 hours of its release cannot be seen as anything but an enviable master stroke.”
When Netflix’s first and only advertising for the film aired, a collective gasp echoed throughout Hollywood. Had the streaming platform-turned-studio really just condensed the marketing and release of a J.J. Abrams-backed space epic with a prestige-level cast into a couple of hours on a Sunday night? By midweek, after audiences had seen it and critics had filed a decidedly pan-heavy batch of reviews, Hollywood’s executive class still had more questions than answers. Namely: what does this mean for the future of theatrical marketing campaigns, and the power of Netflix?
“Everybody is looking at this and saying, ‘We love theatrical [releases] but we have to be real,’” said a president of production at a rival studio. “Imagine if you’re a studio and you have a bad movie. You could now sell it to Netflix; they spend $5 million marketing it, and potentially 100 million people can see it. You’re already ahead. It doesn’t matter if it’s shit.”
Of course, not every weekend is Super Bowl Sunday, and not every film has a loyal built-in fan base. But Netflix’s stunt taught Hollywood two things: the town’s most formidable disruptor is unlikely to let up; and in the age of diminishing theatrical returns, there are myriad new methods to sell a movie to consumers.
“I think what this does usher into Hollywood is the idea that distribution should be a choice,” said a veteran studio marketing executive. “Content creators and studios should have the flexibility to say, ‘What is the best thing for this movie?’ Do you go through the gauntlet: fund the press tour, go wide, roll out?”
Or do you take the tack of releasing to Netflix or a rival streaming service in a splashy, event-like manner that captures America’s attention and gets hundreds of millions of eyeballs on your content immediately?
The Cloverfield Paradox, the third installment in the twisty monster-movie franchise, was shot on the Paramount lot by rookie filmmaker Julius Onah from June to August 2016, a time when Abrams was in the midst of the worldwide publicity tour for Star Trek: Beyond, which he also produced. According to one source close to the production, Abrams was committed to making the movie a success and kept the edit bay open for close to a year, sending the original production budget of around $30 million (already high for a Cloverfield film) into the $45 million to $50 million range. Paramount declined to comment on the budget numbers. Representatives for Abrams did not respond to requests for comment.
“J.J. had been valiantly trying to fix it, but he probably wasn’t around enough for a too-ambitious Cloverfield movie,” the source said. “This was set in outer space. There is much more C.G. than being in a basement and making things wobble. It was one of those movies that was not in control.”
All the while, Paramount kept shifting its release date to accommodate Abrams’s changes. Eventually it became clear to the studio, two sources said, that the movie would disappoint if it were released theatrically. Critics would hate it, and a poor Rotten Tomatoes score would torpedo the additional $30 million required to market the film. That calculus was correct.
On Sunday, critics—already irked that they were caught flat-footed—rejected the film outright. The Los Angeles Times’ Justin Changsaid, “What excitement this movie is able to muster soon gives way to the startling realization that virtually none of its twists, for all their dimension-hopping audacity, have been coherently or intelligently thought through,” while Vanity Fair’s own Joanna Robinson wrote that it “gives off the tired vibe of a TV episode you’ve already seen.”
Likely knowing this would be the case, Paramount’s recently installed studio chief, Jim Gianopulos, who had just negotiated to sell the international rights of the Natalie Portman vehicle Annihilation to Netflix in December 2017, set about making a deal for Cloverfield too. One source confirmed reports that the streaming service purchased the monster movie for $50 million. Sources with knowledge of the deal said that it is only for three years; rights will revert back to Paramount at that time. It does not include access to future Cloverfield movies, and Paramount retains the film’s China release, which may or may not materialize depending on China’s mercurial rules. Only after the deal was closed did Abrams and Netflix conjure up the Super Bowl surprise.
“We thought, what was the most fun way we could surprise people with this,” Abrams said during a London screening of the film Wednesday night. “We went and had this totally weird, top-secret, creepy meeting with Netflix, and they were so great. They thought it was an amazing idea. And in six to eight weeks, this went from ‘could we do this’ to ‘this is on, and we just need to shut up about it.’”
While it would not provide figures for total viewership, Netflix said that it saw “extraordinary“ global demand for the film in the form of customers who added it to their watch lists. The company’s usual opacity on audience size has left many in town scratching their heads, grumbling over the company’s willingness to spend so lavishly on divisive projects like The Cloverfield Paradox. Did luring subscribers to its service Sunday evening prop up other properties on Netflix, including the new, high-budget science-fiction series Altered Carbon, which debuted two days earlier? Maybe this move was just to prove, once again, that Netflix loves changing the rules.
“I don’t understand what the real objective was,” said a rival studio marketing chief. “Was it to show what they could do? Was it to monopolize the market in the midst of the loudest marketing platform of the year? It was attention-getting and certainly effective, and it turned a non-event movie into an event. Cloverfield became bigger than it ever could have been had they released it in April as a wide release.”
Still, the critical disregard for the film could help reaffirm the spaghetti-on-wall reputation the studio has earned in Hollywood circles. (Case in point, on Thurdsday Variety reported that Netflix purchased Extinction, a troubled production that Universal pulled from its release slate two months ago.) If the streaming service consistently overpays for movies studios aren’t willing to distribute, how will it conquer the prestige business it so aspires to be part of?
“Maybe a dumping ground is O.K. when you’re making 80 movies a year and content is content,” said the marketer.
While Netflix grapples with that question, the studios must contend with the accelerating demands for its potential ticket buyers’ attention. Getting moviegoers to even leave the house is a proposition that’s becoming harder and harder to achieve, especially with Netflix—and other streaming services—constantly changing the game.
“With or without what happened this past weekend, this is the world we are in,” said the marketing chief. “We are all contending with this. It’s hard for an industry to grow new habits, but when the disruptors are out there fucking with the system, we have to do something.”
Or, as Oyelowo put it, “I don’t know what it means for the future of film. But I do know that I really like making films that real people actually see.”
Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Nicole SperlingNicole Sperling is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.