Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Best Movie You Will Never See

By Mike Gillis

What is "Cloverfield" and will it be a great film? No one cares. Slim chance it will be remembered beyond opening weekend. That won't matter.

"Cloverfield" is the working title of a secret film project by "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams. Based on the paucity of information available, it's a monster movie about a giant parasite. Or robot. Or ancient deity. Websites and blogs are popping up all over the web, components of a very savvy marketing campaign generating early interest in the yet-to-be-named picture, set for release in January 2008.

So why are we talking about it now?

"Cloverfield" is sure to become one of the most notable examples of how movies are marketed in the modern age. The film's publicity arm is already tapping into a hyperactive and voracious network of bloggers and web socialites, feeding them intrigue in small but steady doses. A short teaser trailer surfaced in theaters during the opening weekend of "Transformers," triggering a landslide of giddy interest and debate online, where the trailer now lives. A whole contingent of moviegoers hopes the monster is Godzilla.

Selling a movie these days, specifically those of the tent-pole variety, isn't about the movie or even whether it's any good. It's about product. And product placement -- not whether brand-name potato chips are devoured on screen, but to transform the movie itself into a consumable product. The majority of movies released today are crafted as nothing more than disposable entertainment. You watch, you're entertained, you forget.

Now before you start flaming me as a "film snob," understand I like being entertained as much as anyone at the movies. Whatever other purpose film may serve -- social, philosophical, investigative -- it is foremost a medium intended to entertain. That's fine.

But what happens when people are herded to the theater for the next big picture -- and it's no good? Nothing. The movie lives on, on DVD, online and in infinite syndication. I mean, how many times have you seen "Tremors" on TV?

That picture has probably earned back its budget ten times over on television alone. ("Tremors" isn't a bad little B-picture, actually.) What about the atrocious "Independence Day," which ratcheted up the Hollywood hype machine months in advance? Who doesn't want to see a movie in which the White House blows up? Or what about the years-long buildup to the god-awful "Star Wars, Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace," one of the worst but highest-grossing movies of all time? The end-of-the-world picture is always populat, but who really remembers "The Day After Tomorrow" just a few years after its successful run in theaters?

Spreading the good word before a movie is released is not a new strategy. Oh sure, there were reports of inexplicable catastrophes on the set of William Friedkin's "The Exorcist," which no doubt steered a few people to the theater. And what about the long-running press coverage of "Apocalypse Now's" seemingly doomed production?

Everyone loves a train wreck. But those two pictures survived. They are watched, discussed and enjoyed today, They would have likely survived without incessant coverage.

And they made it without "viral marketing." Viral marketing aims to perpetuate a product primarily via the internet and its social networks. Once the seed is planted, and if it catches on, word spreads on its own. It's a perfect vehicle for movies. Click here for a look at how a viral marketing campaign works.

"The Blair Witch Project" was one of the first films to latch onto viral marketing. Via mysterious websites and curious clues planted online -- much like "Cloverfield" -- the filmmakers sparked interest in a little movie, shot on video, that would have otherwise disappeared without a trace. Instead, that curiosity translated into big box office and made "The Blair Witch Project" one of the highest-grossing independent films of all time. Not bad for a film, despite my admiration for its limited resources, isn't a very good movie.

Which brings us back to "Cloverfield."

Is it a movie about Godzilla? One of the entities from the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft? Voltron?

Keep watching the web. The mystery is bound to be better than the movie.