The Potential of a Cloverfield Sequel
Cloverfield poster
By Philip Friedman     Published March 7, 2008
The features that made Cloverfield so special likely also rubbed a lot of moviegoers the wrong way.
After Cloverfield opened with $17 million on its opening day, I was certain of a sequel. I loved the movie and my mind raced for days about the movie and potential sequel(s). There are plenty of monster movies, but Cloverfield stands out. However, the unbelievable opening quickly turned to unbelievably bad legs – a complete collapse of business after the strong first weekend. $80 million in the US and Canada is nothing to scoff at (that amount is several times larger than the production budget), but it means that 50% of moviegoers saw the movie on the opening weekend. Word of mouth and repeat business can’t be good with this ratio. It brings expectation down and, more seriously, may seriously damage the story and style of the potential sequel.

There are some good excuses in Cloverfield’s financial defense. It opened during a long weekend which strengthens Sunday and makes the 3-day weekend look larger than it normally would. The low open to total ratio may also be a testament to the effectiveness of the Cloverfield ad campaign. Everyone that wanted to see it knew about it and was very motivated to see it. It could be that the disappointing sales after the $40 million open is due more to the success of the pre-release ad campaign rather than a failure of the movie to deliver. The highest previous opening during that weekend was Underworld 2 with just under $27 million and a total of $62 million. In this sense, Cloverfield’s marketing campaign raised it to the likes of a sequel in a popular franchise. Given the structure of theatrical distribution deals, producers make a lot more from a ticket sold in the first weekend than two months into the release. That’s the good news for Cloverfield fans.

The bad news is that there is likely a lot of second guessing. The total box office might have been a lot higher if the movie was different. While the critics’ reviews have been favorable (77% at RottenTomatoes), you have to figure exit polls were decidedly mixed. Of the friends I recommended the movie to, half of them will probably never take my recommendations seriously again – they hated the movie. For those who had to leave the theater because they were on the verge of making the ushers’ cleaning job a lot more difficult, I can understand – you don’t recommend a cruise to someone who is prone to seasickness. However, the people I’m afraid of are the ones that wanted more explanation.

I hate movies that spoon feed the plot. I don’t have friends or strangers explaining everything and certainly not with near-perfect accuracy and I don't want that in movies. It may be comforting, but it stunts the speculation powers of moviegoers. There should be a sense of ignorance and mystery in order to drive the viewer’s curiosity. That type of discovery process makes a movie much richer than a script that needs to footnote every detail. Where did Cloverfield come from, what are its weaknesses, what happens in the end? That’s what internet forums are for. The movie isn’t a complete set of answers; it’s a starting point that goes beyond the initial viewing. For many moviegoers, a movie is a 90-minute distraction and not much more. For them, unanswered questions are defects, not benefits.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of Cloverfield was the way it reached through the “4th wall” – the invisible wall between you, the moviegoer, and the imaginary world of the movie. It’s something that’s usually ignored except when an actor might wink in a close-up or something more devious like shooting a cannonball directly towards the camera. Most of the time, the 4th wall provides a sturdy defense against the intensity occurring on the other side. We’re pampered with steady cam shots or amazing wide shots high up on a large boom. Sure, it might be an exciting scene, but the characters can all die and the show will go on. Cloverfield doesn’t allow for that luxury. It made the lives of the characters more important to the audience. We might find them boring at their party, but if moviegoers have any chance of finding out what happened, we need them to stay alive. The cameraman is mortal and not omnipresent. That’s a refreshing change.

Credit goes to Blair Witch for developing the modern model for this, but let’s be realistic. Blair Witch was made with pocket change and it showed. Cloverfield shares Blair Witch's experimental style, but Cloverfield had almost a decade of reflection of using first-person camera shots and many more millions. A shaking tent doesn’t match up with the raw intensity of a massive creature confronting a well-armed military. War of the Worlds attempted something similar with a much larger budget, but it was much more conventional and plagued with the usual news reporter filling in useless plot details. On a side note, you can’t help but see the influence of September 11 in both WOTW and Cloverfield. That event has likely provided the template for cinematic disasters for a generation of filmmakers.

What does this have to do with the sequel? Well, the features that made Cloverfield so special likely also rubbed a lot of moviegoers the wrong way. I can see a studio executive or a producer going through the results of screenings and seeing complaints about not knowing enough, too many video camera shots, and where’s the happy ending? There will be a temptation to fix these problems in the sequel and doing so will strip away the very things that made me go from wanting to walk out in the first fifteen minutes to not being able to stop thinking about it for days after the screening. I haven’t visited the fan sites, but I hope there are many fans that would agree with me. Please don’t make Cloverfield II into another cliché monster movie complete with all “the answers.”
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  • Lee's Cloverfield review B-
    January 19, 2008    The big scenes generate the kind of intensity we want in a picture like this...but it takes time to get to them, which is a little frustrating. -- Lee Tistaert