Netflix released a surprise ad for the surprise release of a surprise sequel to Cloverfield during the Super Bowl, earning the streaming network a surprising amount of great press. “Netflix’s Ultimate Super Bowl Surprise,” raved Deadline. “Netflix Stuns With Surprising Cloverfield Paradox Super Bowl Release,” raved Vanity Fair. And the Los Angeles Times raved, in the most SEO-friendly way imaginable, “Netflix Pulls a Beyoncé: The Cloverfield Paradox Will Have a Surprise Launch on the Streaming Service Tonight.” But how did Netflix produce a sequel to Cloverfield in secret? How did they get J.J. Abrams to move one of his productions—a franchise installment, no less—from his traditional home at Paramount into the wild world of streaming? Why did Netflix forgo a normal advertising campaign, especially after the big build it gave Bright? The answers are: They didn’t, he didn’t, and it’s funny you should ask that, because there’s a story there. Surprise!
Despite its surprise Super Bowl ad, The Cloverfield Pardox has been in various stages of development since 2012, at which point Obama had four years to go and it wasn’t a Cloverfield movie at all. Originally titled God Particle, J.J. Abrams set up the project at Paramount Insurge, a division the studio had created to produce ultra–low-budget features after the success of Paranormal Activity. Newcomer Julius Onah was attached to direct from a screenplay by Oren Uziel. Unfortunately, Paramount Insurge closed down entirely as part of the studiowide shuffle that followed Adam Goodman’s firing in 2015. The sole project on their slate by then, The Cellar, starring John Goodman, moved to Paramount proper. (For whatever reason, God Particle didn’t make the press reports.) You might remember The Cellar as 10 Cloverfield Lane, the name under which it was eventually released after being retrofitted as a part of the growing Cloverfield-iverse.
At first, it seemed like God Particle had made its way back to Paramount unchanged: In Feb. 2016, Paramount announced it would be released on Feb. 24, 2017. The film began shooting that June with a cast including David Oyelowo and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. It’s unclear exactly when it got Cloverfield-ized—rumors were circling by late fall of 2016—but in December of that year, Paramount announced that it had been removed from their schedule entirely. A few days later, they said it was back, it was now part of the Cloverfield universe, and it would be released in IMAX on Oct. 27, 2017. Cloverfield-ization came with an ambitious, if obviously temporary, title: 2017 Cloverfield Movie. That spring, screenwriter Oren Uziel gave Variety this utterly dispiriting quote about his project:
They are smart and savvy and know that the brand of J.J. and the brand of Cloverfield are enormous. It’s a smart way of being able to make original movies, but have them be a recognizable IP. I understand it and endorse that.
But despite the promises made by the title, there was no 2017 Cloverfield Movie. Paramount moved the release date to Feb. 2, 2018, then waited until this January—having released no trailer, poster, or other marketing material a month before it was supposed to be in theaters—to announce it would actually not be released theatrically until April 20. At that point, people were beginning to get the impression that Paramount didn’t have a lot of faith in the movie, and Netflix swooped in.
Despite this history, Cloverfield Paradox was greeted rapturously on social media after its Super Bowl teaser. Director Ava DuVernay called it a “gamechanger” for putting Netflix’s power behind a diverse cast, a black director, and a “straight to the people” release.
Meanwhile, The Good Place writer Demi Adejuyigbe praised Netflix for releasing the film, but was unhappy with the stealth marketing:
This led to the following memorable interaction between critic David Ehrlich and the official Netflix Twitter account:
Twitter fun aside, what should one make of God Particle’s long, strange path to the screen? The good news is it isn’t the first film to get orphaned in a Paramount shakeup, then pushed around the release schedule for an alarmingly long time before making its way to audiences. It isn’t even the first film to get orphaned in this Paramount shake-up; the studio recently made another movie do the four-release-date shuffle, in part due to the fallout from Adam Goodman’s departure. The bad news is that other movie was Monster Trucks. Cloverfield Paradox—streaming right now—could be a great film. But if it turns out to be terrible, no one should be surprised.