In recent weeks, some of the biggest entertainment releases happened without warning. On January 30, comedian Louis C.K. unveiled a secret new series he’s been shooting, Horace and Pete, by making its first episode available for purchase on his website. On February 6, a day before she was scheduled to perform at halftime at the Super Bowl, Beyoncé (known for these types of surprises) dropped a video for a brand new single, “Formation,” that nobody had any idea was even in the works. On February 10, Funny or Die released a parody short, Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie, starring Johnny Depp as the GOP presidential frontrunner. And on February 14, ending weeks of speculation as to when it would appear, Kanye West finally unleashed his much-anticipated new album, The Life of Pablo, after performing on Saturday Night Live.
Major names releasing new material will always be big news. But these particular launches are part of a larger entertainment trend in which, at a time when it seems increasingly difficult for celebrities to keep secrets thanks to social media and the likes of TMZ, the element of surprise is that rarest (and most valuable) of artistic commodities. Perhaps you probably would have consumed these products anyway, but knowing that they arrived out of the blue made them extra-special. (Not to mention, things are way harder to pirate when they arrive by surprise.) It wasn’t enough to be wowed by “Formation’s” sinking New Orleans police car or intrigued by Horace and Pete’s stage-bound drama — the appeal was partly because their creators kept their new works so hush-hush that we didn’t even know what to get excited about.
However, there’s one medium that’s suspiciously absent from the above list: movies. While the music industry shocks consumers by unveiling critically-acclaimed albums such as Beyoncé and Black Messiah in the middle of the night, the film business seems to be going in the exact opposite direction, dutifully announcing future projects that won’t be hitting movie theaters until years from now. (Take Marvel, which has already slotted Avengers: Infinity War Part I on May 4, 2018, Captain Marvel for March 8, 2019 and Avengers: Infinity War Part II on May 3, 2019.) Because there are so many people, and so much money, involved in making films, the prospect of a surprise movie release is all the more tantalizing — and all the more unlikely. But is it impossible?
Guido Götz, a former publicist for the independent-film firm mPRm who recently moved to Sony’s Screen Gems, sums up the core obstacles. “Personally, I don’t think it’s possible to keep a shoot quiet. With a record, you go into a studio and only have that small staff to deal with. But there are way too many people involved with a movie shoot. Plus, social media would make it even more difficult — if not entirely shot on a soundstage — to keep it a secret.”
In addition, the film industry’s inner workings don’t lend themselves to surprises. Aditya Sood, a producer on the Oscar-nominated The Martian and an executive producer on the megahit Deadpool, points out that it’s not just the issue of how many people a studio film employs. “Remember, you also have to book screens” — a time-consuming process involving contacting different theater chains to ensure availability — “and all these other things that would make it hard to move nimbly,” he says. And because studio movies are so expensive — sometimes costing more than $200 million, not including promotion — the need to recoup those costs requires months of planning and prep time to make sure the target audience knows exactly when it’s coming.
But what about on the indie side, where costs are less and the shock of a surprise release could help build awareness for movies that aren’t just another sequel or reboot? Kyle Patrick Alvarez, the filmmaker behind last year’s The Stanford Prison Experiment, is still skeptical.
“The life of an album is much, much longer than, at least, the initial release of a film,” says Alvarez, who has had two movies premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. “So, you could drop a surprise album and then do a ton of press for it over the coming weeks. That would not work in the current [film] release structure,” in which most movies, big or small, make their money chiefly in the first week or two.
Ironically, the lumbering nature of film production — and the industry’s stringent attempts to curtail online piracy — has kept the business from enjoying the immediacy and intimacy that comes from a music fan buying Beyoncé on iTunes as soon as he discovers that the album is out. But it’s a tradeoff the film industry will gladly take, considering how music sales have been crippled by cheap streaming services and piracy. So it’s no wonder that, for financial reasons, the music business has embraced surprise releases: The shock arrival of a high-profile new record both cuts into the chances of advance copies getting into the wrong hands and drives awareness that can make buying the album an event. (Plus, the attendant media storm around the surprise release can be parlayed into the announcement of tour dates, which is how most musicians make the bulk of their money these days.)
Still, those we interviewed contend that movie studios have ways of creating surprises that generate buzz, even if the end product isn’t a secret film coming out tomorrow. Sood mentions that Deadpool hit theaters with an unannounced extra scene that hadn’t been included in any preview or critics’ screenings, a move that other Marvel movies have pulled to give fans an extra incentive for going to the theater. “The easter eggs or the end-credits bonus scene, those are the kinds of surprises that I think are actually the equivalent of the [surprise] new song that comes out,” he says. “You didn’t know it was coming, nobody talks about it, and then all of a sudden, there’s shock value for people who go see it that first weekend.”
And Götz, who covered the Sundance and Toronto film festivals as an indie publicist, says, “The closest [the film industry] comes to [a surprise] is probably when we don’t screen a finished movie in advance but [have] all press see it at its world premiere at festivals.” Götz points to two such cases that took place at this January’s Sundance: Both the Nat Turner slave drama The Birth of a Nation and Southside With You, a fictionalized account of Barack and Michelle Obama’s first date, had their first screening at Park City’s biggest theater, the filmmakers capitalizing on must-see buzz to successfully launch their movies. (And, in the case of The Birth of a Nation, the glowing reception led to a record-breaking purchase by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million and the top prize in the festival’s U.S. Dramatic competition.)
Film surprises come in other shapes, too. On January 15, Paramount and producer J.J. Abrams announced that a low-profile thriller that had been titled Valencia would be coming out March 11 — to be re-titled 10 Cloverfield Lane, a title that implied it was the sequel to the surprise 2008 hit film Cloverfield. That original movie was, itself, something of a surprise release: The producers kept its plotline under wraps, initially putting out a teaser trailer that didn’t even mention the found-footage film’s title. (Abrams, who produced both movies, later told Collider about 10 Cloverfield Lane, “The idea [to make Valencia a Cloverfield sequel] came up a long time ago during production. We wanted to make it a blood relative of Cloverfield. The idea was developed over time. We wanted to hold back the title for as long as possible.” Abrams, of course, could be just spinning all of us to make it sound like some super-secret surprise all along.)
That said, the recent buzz around 10 Cloverfield Lane might be the closest thing the mainstream movie business has to a legitimate surprise release, hiding the sequel (if you believe it was meant to be from the start) from view by giving it a fake name and having it feature none of the original film’s stars. But when pressed to speculate about the possibility of making a bona fide surprise movie, a couple different filmmakers offered suggestions that, while unlikely, aren’t impossible.
“I would definitely consider making a secret film just because it would be a cool challenge,” says Lucky McKee, the acclaimed cult horror filmmaker responsible for the intense low-budget scares of May and The Woman. “I think horror fans would get a big kick out of it. Wouldn’t it be cool if we discovered that one of our favorite filmmakers was making awesome shit under a pen name, a la what Stephen King did with his Richard Bachman books? An artist can build baggage and a certain kind of expectation from their audience over the course of their career, so the appeal of being able to remove all that and start fresh is alluring.”
But Alvarez says that to drop a surprise film, “It would take a big actor — Will Smith, Jennifer Lawrence — doing a smaller-scale movie that either is made independent and no one knows about it, or a studio making a modest-enough movie that they can bury the title in other costs so that no one really knows what’s going on.”
In a sense, 10 Cloverfield Lane is that second example, a sequel no one knew was a sequel.
Sood cites Horace and Pete when he suggests what the possibilities might be for a surprise film. “Especially if you distribute it on the internet, you don’t have to worry about distribution. That’s the trickiest part.” Louis C.K.’s ability to make a self-contained drama on a soundstage while working with a small cast and crew made Horace and Pete possible, but his ability to distribute straight through his website allowed for the surprise.
The same do-it-yourself spirit inspired writer-director Joss Whedon, who in 2008 put out the surprise web miniseries Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. (Six years later, he flouted traditional theatrical distribution patterns by putting out the paranormal drama In Your Eyes, which he wrote, online immediately after its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.) In an interview last year, Whedon claimed he made more money from the low-budget, self-financed Dr. Horrible than from writing and directing The Avengers. That sort of statement might make aspiring filmmakers consider abandoning the studio system to do their own movies, but be advised: It probably helps to have Whedon’s financial wherewithal and his connection to stars like Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion to get anyone to care.
Sood suggests that an entity likes Netflix, which produces original series such as House of Cards, might also be able to pull off a surprise film since it has the means to make a movie available instantly to subscribers. But even big stars can still turn to traditional outlets to drop a bomb on fans: last April, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig had quietly shot a secret Lifetime parody movie called A Deadly Adoption, which Lifetime aired two months later.
So, there are examples of how such a surprise film could happen. Nonetheless, Alvarez has serious misgivings about why the industry would even embrace the model. As he puts it, “The real question would be: What’s the point? A song or album drop can immediately blow up on the internet, but would people really freak out to that degree for a movie to just come out of the blue? Maybe if it was Jennifer Lawrence in Captain Marvel coming out tomorrow, it would drive a huge [amount] of press attention, but would it really be more attention than a proper release could do? For the record industry, the answer is yes, but for the movie industry, I just can’t see where the benefit would be.”
But if the movie industry isn’t about to emulate other medium’s attraction to surprise releases, a filmmaker like McKee isn’t all that concerned. “Surprise is fun, but it’s not as high up on my list as making films that have staying power,” he says. “I try to make stuff that hits people one way the first time — surprise, shock, discovery, aligning with (or defying) expectation — and then hopefully, the work hits them in a different way the second time. The attempt is to make work that transforms for the audience the more time they spend with it.”
In other words, sometimes the best surprises are the ones that develop over time.
Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch. He is also a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Vulture as well as the author of six books, including Martin Scorsese in Ten Scenes.