Netflix To The Rescue: How The Cloverfield Paradox Changes Film Distribution

This was a marketing breakthrough.

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As is tradition for those of us unaffiliated with American football, the biggest takeaways from this year’s Super Bowl came not from the result (though congrats to the Eagles) but in fact the slate of trailers for upcoming films. Audiences worldwide were given their first glimpse of Solo: A Star Wars Story, whilst other mega-budget productions like Avengers: Infinity War and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom received further exposure, ahead of their summer releases. This year, however, the very nature of ‘upcoming’ was drastically altered, when the first teaser for The Cloverfield Paradox ended with an astonishing twist: “TONIGHT”. A marketing strategy unparalleled in cinema, the film was set to be released on Netflix that very night, immediately after the Super Bowl had finished.

With the ever-growing domination of video-on-demand services, this was undoubtedly a deft and fitting strategy for cinematic releases in the digital age. The cosmic rise of Netflix is particularly noteworthy in this discussion, given the dent that it (and many other VOD services) has made on theatrical releases. Despite the Cloverfield series having previous in unorthodox marketing, its films still retained a traditional theatrical release. With Netflix acquiring the sole distribution rights to its latest entry, however, this was no longer the case – and allowed the series to push its unique promotion strategies one step further.

Remarkable for a film of any kind, the audacity of such tactics is made even more astounding given it was a $45 million production – directed by Julius Onah, a young Nigerian-American filmmaker whose previous work remains largely unknown to wider audiences. Led by British actress Gugu-Mbatha Raw, the film’s predominantly POC ensemble cast follows a group of astronauts aboard the Cloverfield space station – the objective of which is to solve the global energy crisis back on Earth. Rather ironically, the crew’s repeated efforts to boot up the so-called Shepard particle accelerator is reflective of the film itself – an apt visual rendering of its failed attempts to properly get going. It is a poorly executed sci-fi on its own terms, whilst as part of the Cloverfield series it is a crushing disappointment that tries awfully hard to claim whatever franchise relevance it can.

That being said, the film has enormous value on the basis of its release alone, with major implications for the future marketing of films. This is especially true of distribution – particularly in terms of the position Netflix holds. Indeed, it is important to note that Netflix played no role in the film’s production, instead purchasing the completed film from Paramount for a reported $50m, just last month. In retrospect of its critical shortcomings, this was a savvy manoeuvre on Paramount’s behalf – managing to make an immediate profit from what, realistically, was a risky production. For Netflix, meanwhile, what theatrically may have been a difficult sell instead has some grounds to claim success. This is down to their criteria of success lying in viewers alone, rather than box-office numbers (the film is essentially free, after all, for Netflix consumers).

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Demonstrated by the recent launch of Bright – a car crash of a film that was nevertheless a resounding success for Netflix – the model of consumption provided by streaming services can eliminate the financial risks that a traditional theatrical release is always subject to. Generated by its abysmal critical response, Bright provoked a massive level of internet chatter that undoubtedly boosted its views. This was evidenced in the response from the film’s director, David Ayer, who said that Indiewire’s scathing review “is going on my fridge… This is a fucking epic review.” It must be noted that The Cloverfield Paradox is a different beast – not so much relishing its shortcomings as it is simply an unfortunate failure. Whereas Bright benefitted from its mockery in attracting viewers, The Cloverfield Paradox instead relied on the sheer audacity of its unique release – which inevitably seduced consumers. Make no mistake: had the film launched a proper marketing campaign in advance, it would not have amassed anywhere near this level of interest. A large part of the Cloverfield series’ charm, admittedly, lies in its marketing oddities.

There is no sign of Netflix slowing down, either, in their occupation of this rare position in distribution. Duncan Jones recently expressed his dismay that his long-awaited passion project Mute would never have a DVD/Blu-ray release (in lieu of it being a ‘Netflix original’); whilst Alex Garland’s upcoming Annihilation, despite receiving a theatrical release in the US and China, will elsewhere be available solely on Netflix. Both directors have made a point of acknowledging Netflix in opening up their films to as many people as possible. However, there still remains inevitable disappointment in that their films will not be seen on the big screen – in the manner in which it was made for. In this vein, the release of The Cloverfield Paradox is not just significant in its unique release, but just adds to the further implications of viewing practices and spectatorship in an increasingly digital climate.

Furthermore, this move also demonstrates a growing trend in Hollywood – in which studios now have the enticing option of cutting their losses, selling their risky upcoming releases to services like Netflix. A straight-to-video path for the digital age, if you will. This has already begun, with news of Universal pulling their latest production Extinction from theatrical release and instead selling it to Netflix for a presumably tidy sum. Similarly, having managed to offload risky $45m production for a no-strings-attached, instantaneous $50m, Paramount will undoubtedly feel rather smug – and will likely have less hesitation in exercising such an option in future.

Whether or not the astounding release of The Cloverfield Paradox will provoke similar strategies in future releases remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is the direction that Netflix and other services continue to drag cinema. The merits and perils of this new direction is another discussion entirely, but it is one that we will need to be addressed, sooner or later.

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