Most movies have slickly produced trailers that scream a film's name from the rooftops; this one wouldn't even confirm its title until just before release. Most movies aim for big stars, iconic villains and enticing story lines; 2008's first potential blockbuster is made up of no one you've heard of, a monster nobody has seen and little more than a one-sentence setup. Most films these days have a Web site; this film seems to have at least five.
On Friday, movie geeks will finally get an answer to a question that has driven them mad for nearly a year: What the hell is "Cloverfield," anyway?
"The basic plot of 'Cloverfield' is that it's about a group of kids who happen to be in New York City at a going-away party of their friend Rob," explained Bryan Burk, a producing partner in J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot company, the minds behind "Cloverfield" and TV's "Lost." "In the middle of [his] relationship turmoil, an enormous thing attacks the city. ... Everyone starts fleeing the city, and our characters happen to be separated, and Rob has to find the woman he loves and get the rest of his friends out of the city before this thing destroys all of Manhattan."
Sounds good to us. But five key phrases seem to be missing from Bryan's plot summary: Tagruato, Slusho!, T.I.D.O.wave, Ethan Haas, and Jamie and Teddy.
For months now, movie fans and sites (like ours) have been attempting to separate the legitimate "in-game" clues from the "out-of-game" wannabes. On the Slusho! site, a frozen drink promises yummy goodness with a dark aftertaste. Over at the Tagruato Web site, a Tokyo-based company makes world-conquering plans to drill our oceans. T.I.D.O.wave is the crude blog run by environmentalists determined to take down Tagruato. And Jamie and Teddy (password: jllovesth) features bizarre videos of a teen girl going insane.
"I've visited all of them," admitted Jimmy Mundo, a Web-savvy fan from Darien, Illinois, who plans to see "Cloverfield" this weekend. "All of [the sites] are really good, especially Slusho!'s because it really went in-depth. It was like Slusho! was a real product! It sells the shirts, hoodies, caps ... and just the overall feel of the site felt very real."
Then, of course, there's Ethan Haas.
"In early 2007, we had a client that contacted us and had a new game coming out, and it's a role-playing game. ... They wanted to promote it online," remembered Donny Makower, the president of RED Interactive Agency, the company behind the Haas site. "We came up with a concept to develop a site that not only promoted the game, but before launching that site [would] start out with a teaser site."
During Fourth of July week, "Transformers" opened to a massive box office. Prior to the flick, theatergoers witnessed a shaky, handheld clip of chaos teasing unrecognizable teens, an unseeable monster decapitating the Statue of Liberty and no title. "J.J. said, 'God, if I saw a trailer like that, I'd spend all night trying to figure out what it was, so let's try it!' " Burk remembered of the unorthodox ad. "It definitely had the reaction we were hoping it would have but far surpassed anything we could've ever imagined. People had that kind of excitement and discovery that you just don't have anymore."
As millions of amateur Sherlock Holmeses went running to their computers to collectively piece together clues, Makower suddenly found his Ethan Haas traffic skyrocketing. Yet the site had nothing whatsoever to do with the movie.
"We created something that had a similar look, with our backdrop and our design that we created for the teaser," he remembered of his site's late-summer explosion. "There was an article written about it in USA Today. ... It basically was an article talking about the marketing for 'Cloverfield,' and it mentioned Ethan Haas Was Right. ... It really was like creating the perfect storm."
While fans pieced together clues about these (and many other) sites, the two organizations that had never even spoken both remained quiet, further stoking the flames of speculation.
"We didn't fuel it," Makower recalled, "but by the same token, we decided, 'Let's just sort of maintain radio silence.' "
"Thank you for not telling people to go crazy and kill their family," laughed Burk, delivering a message to his coincidental co-conspirator. "It turned out to be for a game [called 'Alpha Omega']. My message to my Ethan Haas viral instigator is: 'Thank you for all your hard work getting it out there, and I can't wait for you to see "Cloverfield." ' I'm also hoping that whoever is really named Ethan Haas is not upset."
"It all proves that you can be very vague and give people just a little bit, and they'll take the ball and run with it," Makower said of his unexpected inclusion on everything from sites to podcasts to message boards discussing "Cloverfield" mysteries. "And they'll just keep running with it, even if they're running in the wrong direction."
"After I saw the trailer before 'Transformers,' I just started searching [for the cryptic release date listed] 1/18/08 as soon as I got online," remembers Kristina Soliz, a 21-year-old from Austin, Texas, who has shared her speculation on the equally enigmatic "Cloverfield" MySpace page. "I Googled it so many times, which would lead to its main page with the photos. I eventually went to CloverfieldClues.blogspot.com, which led me to everything else, and I've been hooked since the end of July!"
Fanning the flames, Abrams appeared briefly at July's Comic-Con, refusing to name the film he was producing, but handing out cheery Slusho! T-shirts that read, "You Can't Drink Just Six!"
That fictional drink first appeared on Abrams' "Alias" TV show — more than six years ago! "We had Slusho! in mind back then," Burk remembered. "It was something that J.J. had always talked about, and we'd been thinking of ideas we wanted to do with that. When 'Cloverfield' came together, there was a natural synergy, and we were like, 'Oh, now we can finally do what we wanted to do with that,' and the stories started overlapping and became a bigger thing."
Although Abrams and Burk remain dodgy on which sites they've officially endorsed, fans have spent the months since Comic-Con trading the coveted T-shirts online, visiting the Slusho! site (where you can even e-mail the company to apply for a job), and following subplots best described as, well, monstrous.
In the teaser, a character is wearing a Slusho! T-shirt; on his MySpace page, the character has revealed that he's going to go to work for the company. On the Tagruato site, it seems that the company owns Slusho! and that its drilling for the drink's "Seabed's Nectar" led to a fictional confrontation with T.I.D.O.wave in December (numerous "news" videos are on the Web depicting an explosion). To further complicate matters, Jamie (of Jamie and Teddy) recently consumed raw Seabed's Nectar, went insane and is planning to attend that very party that kicks off "Cloverfield." And the studio is actually holding that party — for real — in New York this week.
"We're having the party that's leading up to the infamous surprise party Thursday night [January 17], before the movie opens," grinned Burk, clearly having fun with all this. "We're having a going-away party for Rob."
Maybe you need to know all this stuff before you see "Cloverfield," but most likely you don't. Either way, some people have a very big headache right now — and others are gleefully riding the wave.
"I like the detail on the Tagruato site, and I like the interaction on the Slusho! site," insisted Richard Sparks, a 53-year-old fan who plans to see "Cloverfield" this weekend. "I have not visited the Ethan Haas site, and I think Jamie and Teddy, Slusho!, Tagruato and T.I.D.O.wave are all connected, but Slusho! appears in 'Lost' and other Abrams projects."
"I've gone to Jamie and Teddy, and I like the videos," explained David Espinoza of Westland, Michigan. "I will be there at 12:01 a.m. Friday watching this movie. I can't wait to know exactly what it's all about. Oh, and of course, I'd love to see the monster."
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