Did Netflix’s Cloverfield Experiment Live up to the Hype?

In her book Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility, former Netflix Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord tells the story of how a simple question inspired the company to rethink how they released content.

A group of new employees were receiving a presentation from Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos on ‘windowing of content’ – the timeline that takes a movie from the cinema, to hotel rooms and airplanes, and then eventually to home entertainment, at which point Netflix can finally screen the film months after initial release.

An engineer put up their hand, and asked Sarandos a question that would redefine the Netflix system: “Why does the windowing of content happen like that?”

Sarandos couldn’t give him an answer.

Years later, when Netflix started producing original content, this interaction was the reason for the decision to release episodic content all at once, rather than on a weekly schedule.

And so the Netflix binge was born.

Yesterday, February 5th, 2018 – it seemed like Netflix had taken the next logical step in redefining the windowing of content.

During the Super Bowl, a trailer ran for the long-awaited The Cloverfield Paradox, the third film in the Cloverfield series, produced by J.J. Abrams’ company Bad Robot. With distributor Paramount having slated an April 20 release date for the film in the US, the spot was unsurprising.

What was surprising, however, was that the trailer ended with a title card revealing The Cloverfield Paradox would be available on Netflix immediately after the Super Bowl finished.

 

It seemed a huge coup. Not only were Netflix set to exclusively release a big studio movie mere hours after the first and only marketing dropped, but in doing so they were championing the kind of disruption of content windowing that the movie industry has needed since the dawn of the internet.

It’s just a shame they chose to do it with such a poor film.

This article isn’t meant to be a review for The Cloverfield Paradox, so I’ll keep my comments on its content brief.

The Cloverfield Paradox is the kind of film distributors would traditionally shovel into cinemas in mid-January to die a quiet death. This time, however, Netflix had become the slaughtering grounds.

That in itself is no newsworthy event. Plenty of movies end up on the streaming service after failing to live up to expectations. What makes this case particularly egregious is that The Cloverfield Paradox makes what should have been a groundbreaking moment in the history of film distribution into a gimmick.

Netflix put lipstick on a pig, and used it to trick audiences into clicking play.

In doing so, they have potentially set a precedent for this kind of release. Will audiences click as eagerly the next time a film is released in this fashion? And will The Cloverfield Paradox‘s reception influence the release of films like Annihilation, which Netflix will stream exclusively in every market but China and North America on the same day it hits US cinemas? This deal is likely designed to negate the need for limited releases in territories such as Australia, rather than a reflection of the film’s quality, but will audiences have taken a ‘fool-me-twice’ mentality by then?

It’s difficult to say. The Cloverfield Paradox experiment is likely to prove a success in terms of the audience it generated, but since Netflix don’t release viewer rates, the only backlash we’re likely to see is in reviews and forum posts.

The instant release model, paired with a small theatrical release, has great potential. The future of cinemas themselves is grim, and distributors desperately need to consider alternatives. Hopefully the next time Netflix (or one of their competitors) try a similar approach, the results will be more favourable for all.

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