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The Netflix Paradox: New Media and Old Methods…

Last night, Netflix released The Cloverfield Paradox.

The release of the film was announced in a Superbowl advertisement, promising audiences that the film would be available direct to them “after the game.” It was a striking move, particularly because so little was known about the film. It was, in many ways, an unexpected Christmas present, particularly as hyped and teased by director Ava DuVernay on Twitter. On the surface of it, this looked like a game-changing paradigm, a film released with only a few hours’ notice, directly bypassing critics and hype in a way that rendered it accessible to casual movie-goers.

Never too far a (Clover)field.

However, it also feels like a publicity coup for Netflix. The company has pulled off something truly remarkable with this release, in pulling off one of the oldest tricks in the film distribution playbook, while making it seem fresh and exciting. More than that, Netflix took a tactic that is traditionally associated with the release of bad films, and presented it as something revolutionary and democratic. Twitter commentators argued that this was the future of film releasing. Peeling back the layers on the release of The Cloverfield Paradox, it looked to be something quit different.

This was simply an old trick being cast in a new light.

#FilmTwitter right now.

Releasing films with very little publicity and no critical coverage is not a new trick by any measure. Film studios have been doing that for decades, particularly with films that they expect to be savaged by critics and audiences. These movies are spared the humiliation of public evisceration by limping quietly into cinemas, making a little money before audiences realise precisely how bad the film is, and then the film sneaks out release having made more money than it might have had it been released in a more conventional manner.

There are countless examples of movies that have been released in this manner. The 1998 version of The Avengers is an early example, but the modern trend became apparent with The Adventures of Pluto Nash four years later. Recently, Proud Mary generated a great deal of attention for refusing to screen for critics and with the studio investing very little in building hype or attention to its release. Many argued that the move was political in nature, given that the film was a starring vehicle for Taraji P. Henson. However, it may also have been because it was a bad film.

“That Nick Fury fellow seems nice. He did say he’d call if he needed anything.”

Of course, studios never admit that they are burying a film because it is terrible. Instead, they craft narratives around these decisions. There has always been a subtle art to explaining why a studio doesn’t want any reviews leaking ahead of time. When Warner Brothers opted not to screen The Avengers for critics, they argued that they “wanted the public and the press to be able to discover the film together.” It was a democraticisation of movie-going power, one that has only been intensified in recent years with the stock defense that any poorly-reviewed franchise film is “not for critics.”

This is all spin, but it has taken on a decidedly populist air in recent years, perhaps reflecting broader cultural sentiment. Perhaps it is not merely the British public that has “had enough of experts.” Perhaps there is a creeping frustration with movie critics and reviewers, as reflected in broader trends like the inevitable backlash that has become an expected part of the Oscar release cycle. There is a sense in which critics and film reviewers are seen as an “elite” imposing their views upon broader culture, reflected in the fixation on “bias” levelled by fans embittered by bad reviews of their favoured properties.

Well, that’s one way to get a thumbs up rating.

As such, in this highly polarised political and cultural moment, it is a canny marketting move to position this “not screening for critics” and “not investing in publicity” as a sort of populist guerilla filmmaking. The implication and appeal is clear, particularly in the case of The Cloverfield Paradox. Global audiences were able to see The Cloverfield Paradox in the exact same instant as critics, allowing these viewers to see their on their own terms and make their own independent judgment. It is easy to see why this can be sold as a massive example of how film has been democratised, dismantling the cultural gate-keepers.

However, there is also a sense that Netflix have been particularly canny in how they handled this release. Early reviews of The Cloverfield Paradox have been less-than-favourable. Indeed, the movie’s development cycle was plagued by rumours about its quality, or lack thereof. Paramount infamously offloaded the film to Netflix, a decision that seemed rather strange given the relative success of projects like Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane. There was no real sense that anybody had a great deal of confidence in the film.

Netflix adopted an interesting approach to keeping early reviews under wraps.

To be fair, there is some mitigating evidence in this particular case. The Cloverfield Paradox is produced by director J.J. Abrams, a storyteller renowned for his love of the “mystery box” approach to narrative. (In fact, Abrams himself has acknowledged that he might be too fond of trying to sneak narrative surprises on the audience.) The earlier Cloverfield films arrived somewhat out of left-field, bypassing a lot of the hype and momentum associated with major releases in this day and age. It is possible to treat The Cloverfield Paradox as a logical extension of that, taken to the extremes possible with Netflix.

There is also the simple fact that Netflix paid to advertise The Cloverfield Paradox during the Superbowl. The average cost of a thirty-second slot at this year’s Superbowl was $5m, which is no small publicity investment. It could reasonably be argued that, despite a lack of build-up and hype around The Cloverfield Paradox, this single advertising buy is enough to distinguish this release from past attempts to bury stinkers like The Avengers, The Adventures of Pluto Nash or Proud Mary.

Ain’t too proud to not screen for critics.

However, there is a matter of degree here. It is very clear that Netflix has treated The Cloverfield Paradox in a manner markedly different from its other major releases, and that manner has been designed to limit the opportunity for critical commentary on the film. The early Cloverfield films may have been positioned as surprise releases, but they did follow a fairly traditional release model. There were trailers and critical screenings leading up to the release, albeit in a much tighter window than usual. Those critical screenings led to positive reviews, which helped convince audiences to go see these films.

Netflix understands the appeal of this release model. After all, the film has engaged (albeit casually) in the traditional release model for its major releases. Okja premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, a movie clearly designed to capitalise on Bong Joon-ho’s auteur status. The studio sends out awards screeners to critics and guild members for films like Mudbound and First They Killed My Father. The company has (understandably) been hyping upcoming releases from auteurs like Duncan Jones’ Mute and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, complete with trailers and press coverage.

Man, these Twitter responses are great.

All of this is to say that the release of The Cloverfield Paradox feels like a pragmatic publicity decision rather than a bold creative choice for the distributor. It is in many ways a huge publicity victory for the company. Sony generated a whole host of negative media coverage for burying Proud Mary, a subpar action movie with an African American lead. In contrast, Netflix have been described as revolutionary for effectively doing the same thing with a movie directed by an African American woman and starring a diverse cast. This is all spin, with a $5m Superbowl advertisement being a small price to pay.

Early reviews indicate that The Cloverfield Paradox may not be a success in critical terms, but it is a massive victory in terms of publicity.

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