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Paramount’s ‘Cloverfield’ packs cheap thrill

"Cloverfield," as fierce a New York-stomping monster movie as you will ever see, may also be Exhibit A in how a Hollywood that loves its $100 million action films can learn to mend its overspending ways.
Image: Cloverfield
"Cloverfield," according to Hollywood buzz, was made for just north of $30 million. Paramount Pictures
/ Source: Business Week

It sure looked like one of Hollywood's big-budget, blockbuster send-offs. Inside the gates of Paramount, a 12-foot tall faux Statue of Liberty loomed — its head lopped off much as it is in the studio's latest horror movie, "Cloverfield." A commercial for the movie, due in theaters Jan. 18, aired on the top-rated American Idol season premiere.

But that's where the big-budget similarities end: "Cloverfield," as fierce a New York-stomping monster movie as you will ever see, may also be Exhibit A in how a Hollywood that loves its $100 million action films can learn to mend its overspending ways.

Who Needs Star Power?
"Cloverfield," according to Hollywood buzz, was made for just north of $30 million. Given Hollywood accounting, which is famous for loading on costs where you least expect to find them, the film more likely set Paramount back $40, maybe even $50 million. But that's still peanuts compared to, say, the Will Smith film "I Am Legend," which easily dinged Warner Bros.' coffers by $150 million to create its own version of New York destruction. I'm not sure that "Cloverfield" will ever sell more than $220 million in tickets, as Legend has, but I'm willing to bet that when it comes time to determine profitability, the Paramount flick may just give Will Smith and his rabid zombies a run for their money.

So how do you produce a film that stars a six-story, tail-slashing monster for less than $50 million, while throwing in crumbling bridges, collapsing skyscrapers, and even some fierce man-eating insects the size of large dogs? Well, you start with the fact that there isn't a brand-name actor in the young, good-looking crew. By contrast, Will Smith got $20 million and a big piece of the profits for "I Am Legend."

When producer J.J. Abrams, the mastermind behind the TV show Lost, decided to make a low-budget monster flick, he went with a bunch of unknowns who no doubt were happy to get a steady paycheck. The star? Michael Stahl-David got his first professional acting gig two years back in a small role on Broadway in "The Diary of Anne Frank" and he had another small role in the quickly canceled NBC series "The Black Donnellys."

An American Godzilla
"Cloverfield" is clearly an homage to the cheesy look of the Godzilla films. Abrams says he decided to make the film while on a publicity trip to Japan with his son to promote "Mission Impossible III," which Abrams directed. Abrams figured what America needed was its own Godzilla, he says. Moreover, he decided to make the movie from the vantage point of the folks being squished. The result is a film made to resemble the herky-jerky style of a camcorder. Forget the monumental, sweeping shots. The up-close and personal style makes the special effects doubly jarring. When the monster's tail snaps through the air, it whips right past your eye. When the monster's tail smashes the Brooklyn Bridge, it rumbles through your stomach. And when the Statute of Liberty's head comes hurtling down a Lower Manhattan street, you all but jump out of its way.

Abrams and director Matt Reeves, his longtime buddy and collaborator, used high-end special effects houses to create the reptilian monster.

But to save money, you mostly get quick glimpses of the monster — a head here, a tail there — and a ton of horrified folks stumbling through New York streets as things rumble around them. (O.K., so Reeves says there is "something scary about things you don't see.")

Borrowing from The Blair Witch Project
Where the real hit-in-the-making genius of "Cloverfield" shines is in its marketing campaign, which was brilliantly designed to build suspense by giving audiences just a hint of what it was about. There was one big "Cloverfield" sighting — a theatrical trailer that ran right before screenings of Paramount's Spielberg-produced blockbuster, "Transformers."

But the trailer was more teaser than commercial and didn't even show the film's title. Pretty soon, the studio was leaking snippets of their flick to online sites, much as Artisan Entertainment did in 1999 with a low-budget horror film called "The Blair Witch Project." That film, which pioneered a new, camcorder verité style, was made for $350,000 or so and went on to gross $140 million.

Abrams describes "Cloverfield" as "a Cameron Crowe movie meets Godzilla meets The Blair Witch Project." I'm not going to tell you that "Cloverfield" will have anywhere near the profitability of "The Blair Witch Project." Few films have. And with its share of stomach-wrenching bloodiness, "Cloverfield" may not be a date movie. But it does show what Hollywood can do when it puts its mind to watching its pennies instead of signing stars. And other studios can do it as well when they put their minds to it.

Last year, Warner Bros. (TWX) turned a nifty profit with its computer-generated action flick 300, which it made for $65 million and sent off to a $211 million U.S. box office. Again: no stars, just plenty of computer-generated backdrops.

It all depends on how you measure success. I'm figuring Paramount may not have a $200 million box office on their hands. (If they thought it would be bigger, they wouldn't have released it in January.) But Abrams and friends have created a film that is a raucous, head-rattling thrill ride of a flick. And they did it for less than what Will Smith will report to the IRS for his role in "I Am Legend."