Netflix sells the sizzle of its bland 'Cloverfield'

08:12 (GMT+2) Fri, 09 Feb 2018

Welcome to the Nothingburger Binge of 2018.

In the past week alone, we've been treated to a veritable smorgasbord of overhyped nonevents. The Nunes memo was a dud: The four-page document, advertised as the silver bullet that would scuttle the investigation being conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller III, turned out to be a wish-fulfillment fantasy of President Donald Trump and his most die-hard supporters, many of whom turned out to be Russian Twitter-bots. On Super Bowl Sunday, Katie Roiphe finally published an essay in Harper's that was supposed to deliver a scathing blow to the #MeToo movement: It didn't.

Then, during the Super Bowl itself, came news of "The Cloverfield Paradox." A $5 million ad announced that the latest installment in the J.J. Abrams franchise would premiere right after the game, on Netflix. The film, it turned out, wasn't much more than a pastiche of smarter, better, less cynical movies.

For people who cover movies for a living, Nothingburgers are nothing new. Unlike those members of the political press who are still adjusting to the reality-TV rhythms of the Trump presidency and who breathlessly bought into the bait-and-switch of Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., most critics and entertainment reporters take care to avoid being sucked in by stunts trying to convince us that they're steaks. No self-respecting journalist wants to be a prop in someone else's ballyhoo.

But Netflix's strategy with "The Cloverfield Paradox" demonstrates how easily that decorum can slip - and how, at least marketing-wise the streaming giant is delivering their Nothingburgers well done. (Sorry.)

On Sunday, they juiced interest before their ad ran with robust support from influencers within the online film community, which lit up when the likes of director Ava DuVernay - a former publicist herself, it bears noting - sent out tantalizing hints of something big that was about to drop: "#FilmTwitter is going to explode tonight," DuVernay tweeted to her 1.6 million followers. "Something is coming that I can hardly believe. Lawd. History in the making."

"The Cloverfield Paradox," it turned out, wasn't exactly earth-shattering as a movie. But DuVernay wasn't wrong in calling it historic. Netflix's decision to buy it, then drop it in a surprise move after one perfectly placed TV ad and an equally shrewd social media campaign was nothing if not brilliant. And the strategy also exemplified a salutary effect that Netflix promises to have on the cinematic ecosystem, as a massive warming tray for Nothingburgers that are cooked up purely for fan service and nothing more.

By avoiding a theatrical release altogether for "The Cloverfield Paradox," the streaming giant went from a cold opening to no opening at all, eliminating the dignity of a big-screen presentation the film probably didn't deserve, saving critics from treating it with seriousness we couldn't muster, and allowing viewers to access it in a way that didn't compromise production values and artistic ambition it doesn't possess. Netflix has pursued a similar right-sizing tactic with Will Smith's uninspired but successful "Bright" (which the company insists had been seen by 11 million people in its first three days, a claim that's impossible to verify), as well as the recent oeuvre of Adam Sandler.

Theater owners might complain that they're missing out on revenue that would come from superfans tramping to the multiplex on opening weekend, although that audience, and the theaters' share of income, burns off quickly when a film isn't - what's the word I'm looking for? - oh yeah: good.

But what if they are good? "Mudbound," the World War II-era epic by Dee Rees that earned four Oscar nominations, opened in only a handful of theaters last fall, despite ambition and visual values that define the term big-screen. Many observers believe that Rees would be in the running for best director, and "Mudbound" for best picture, had the movie received a more traditional theatrical rollout, along with the attendant ad spend, publicity campaign and support from consensus-forming critics.

Even without those trappings, Netflix has still made an expensive Oscar push for the film, which made impressive headway despite Hollywood's abiding ambivalence about the company's growing power. Still, when it came to leveraging the film's core communities of interest, they largely left it up to the fans to organize themselves. Absent a 30-second Super Bowl ad followed by the galvanizing words "only on Netflix tonight," Rees' film has found its audience largely the "old-fashioned" way, through viewer algorithms, a clutch of rave reviews and the earned publicity of the awards circuit.

The result is that its admirers can cheer "Mudbound" being invited to the Oscar ball, even while nursing disappointment that it's not a belle alongside "Get Out" and "Lady Bird." That conundrum might reflect a time of transition, or it might capture an unresolved question: What kind of movie Netflix is most committed to making? We've seen how the company can make turn a Nothingburger into a fleeting pop culture event; it's not nearly as clear that it knows what to do when it has a Somethingburger on its hands.

-  The Washington Post.