Last summer, Hollywood blindsided bloggers and pretty much everyone else with a trailer for a mysterious movie from “Lost” creator J.J. Abrams.
The teaser featured HandyCam footage of New York under siege, attacked by a roaring beast powerful enough to rip off the Statue of Liberty’s head and throw it like a grenade.
At the end of the preview, there was just a release date – “1-18-08” – but no title.
Months later, when a second trailer came out attached to “Beowulf,” it was confirmed the film was called “Cloverfield,” as long rumored.
Since then, a cleverly plotted viral marketing campaign has fired the imaginations of fans, stirring up speculation about the film and the nature of the monster.
Initially, some guessed the creature was related to Godzilla, but as new clues continue to surface, the theories have grown wilder.
A Google search on the movie title leads to www.easterislander.com, with the headline “SPOILER ALERT! CLOVERFIELD MONSTER REVEALED!!!”
The site owner lists six reasons to support his hypothesis that the thing terrorizing the characters is the island of Manhattan itself, which is not a land mass but, in fact, a giant sea creature.
“I love it,” says “Cloverfield” director Matt Reeves, before adding the requisite “No comment.”
Although this picture isn’t the first to be promoted in cyberspace or shrouded in secrecy, in many ways it is a whole new animal.
It’s a monster movie shot like a home movie, and much of the context for the story exists online rather than on film. Using hand-held consumer cameras and casting unknowns enabled the producers to keep the budget down to around $30 million.
In terms of plot, all we know is that the story is centered around a group of characters at a going-away party for a guy named Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who is moving to Japan to start a new career.
The film’s inventive Web sites enable visitors to follow the prelude to disaster in real time, running right up to the attack on Manhattan on Jan. 18. A series of mock online newscasts suggest that the trouble sprawls back to a Japanese oil rig drilling deep in the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda.
“The movie is the main event, but it’s part of a larger puzzle,” says Reeves, via phone from Los Angeles. “There are different ways that you can experience the movie. All of this Internet stuff runs parallel.
“It’s what I call a meta-story. It connects up for people who are interested in unraveling that kind of mystery. But you can also go see this movie having heard nothing about it and have a complete experience.”
The most obvious cinematic precedents for “Cloverfield” are 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” and “Snakes on a Plane” from 2006, both of which created major Internet buzz months before their release.
Unlike “Blair Witch,” however, this film comes from a major production company with a high-profile name attached. And unlike “Snakes,” it has cult appeal by design, with the buzz rooting back to a studio marketing department rather than movie gossip sites.
“Cloverfield” Internet content includes MySpace pages for its characters, along with Web sites for fictional products and organizations. There have been online contests with prizes such as laptop computers and a sneak hometown screening.
The prolific Abrams has built up a brand name for himself, directing “Mission: Impossible III” and launching such acclaimed shows as “Alias” and “Felicity.”
His most successful series, “Lost,” has its own viral universe.
Hidden messages have been scattered around promo pages for companies depicted in the show, Oceanic Airlines and the Hanso Foundation. “The Lost Experience” is an online interactive game where Web surfers delve into the alternate reality of the show.
All eyes will be on the opening weekend numbers for “Cloverfield” to determine whether this method for marketing movies is a passing fad or a new paradigm.
Hot on its virtual heels is a viral campaign for the summer Batman sequel, “The Dark Knight.” The movie has its own orbit of enigmatic Web sites and interactive contests.