Cloverfield Trailer Will Go Viral and Mainstream

J.J. Abrams Didn't Bamboozle Fans; He Let Them in on a Discovery

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J.J. Abrams' new monster movie will have to be pretty damn good to live up to his opening marketing gambit. By screening a cryptic puzzle of a trailer before opening-weekend screenings of "Transformers," Paramount

J.J. Abrams' mysterious trailer

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and Abrams guaranteed themselves the kind of reach that is the stuff of nostalgia for many of today's mass marketers -- the robots-cum-GM-vehicles vehicle opened in 4,000 theaters and has taken in $160 million already -- as well as a frequency of message repetition and level of consumer engagement that advertisers fantasized about a decade ago.

The trailer, likely shot by Abrams himself and in "Blair Witch" home-video style, features some guy's going-away party thrust into pandemonium as Manhattan is attacked by, well, something. It's pretty hard to work out what's going on: There are no name actors; there is no explanatory voice-over. In fact, at first glance there's almost nothing to glom onto beyond shrieking-and-stuff-collapsing drama and the date at the end of the trailer, 1-18-08.

Several journalists wrote about it as if trailer viewers were shortchanged. The Guardian said the trailer "marks a high in the fashion for confusing viewers to increase their passion for your product." The Boston Herald welcomed "a new age in movie marketing, where the less you know about an upcoming film, the more buzz it generates." Yet for thousands of web-dwellers, the trailer acted as an invitation to participate in an alternate-reality game that will see them chatter endlessly about the movie and even co-create its marketing.

From the moment the trailer hit YouTube, thousands of bloggers, vloggers and alternate-reality gamers started dissecting it, byte by byte. Some conducted spectral analyses of the audio in the trailer in order to spot clues in what the characters were saying and compare the roar of the monster to the roar of Godzilla. Others used picture filters and facial-analysis tools to find clues in the video that might hint at more detail on plotlines or websites where more clues could be uncovered.

Last week, at Ad Age's Entertainment Marketers event, I moderated a panel of some of the best in that business: John Miller, CMO at NBC Universal; Jeff Blake, vice chairman of marketing at Sony Pictures; Mike Benson, exec VP-marketing at ABC Entertainment; and Jeff Bell, VP-global marketing for Microsoft Interactive Entertainment. They all talked about the potential offered by internet-marketing techniques to create evangelists for your content, partly by sharing some of it with them. But they also said the way you share is crucial. In the words of Miller, today you need to "let people feel like they're part of something because they discovered it." That's what Abrams is doing. He's not just bamboozling, as The Guardian and Herald journos suggest; he's starting a trail of discovery and engagement.

As a marketing effort, it still faces a big challenge in maintaining our interest, but if anyone knows how to develop this kind of story line, it's Abrams, who also produced "Lost," a show that's as much about the unknown and the questions it prompts among its devotees as it is about what actually happens onscreen. The trailer may have offered only a few clues, but there will be more revelations along the way -- not least the real name of the movie, which Abrams has given only the code name "Cloverfield" -- and as they happen, you can bet they'll garner plenty of chatter in major media outlets and the blogosphere.

Narratives that provoke audience participation have served writers and directors well in the past. "Blair Witch" comes immediately to mind. But so does "The Sopranos," which became the ultimate water-cooler show partly because it begged the audience to ponder and pontificate, or "The Da Vinci Code," which was as much a word-of-mouth phenomenon and web discussion topic as it was a book. If Abrams does as good a job engaging his audience, Paramount stands to open another blockbuster on 1-18-08.
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