How 2016 Became the Year of the Pop Culture Surprise
We live in an age saturated with information, in a culture obsessed with being in the know. Not a day goes by that you don’t see a new movie trailer online, pass a TV show poster on your morning commute, or see a musician promoting their upcoming album in a viral late night clip. We’re always hearing about what’s next, an awareness of the impending future that had driven the element of surprise to near extinction. But in 2016 something different happened in the entertainment world.
When audiences sat down to see Michael Bay’s 13 Hours on opening night they were treated to a trailer for a movie no one had heard of. It was for something called 10 Cloverfield Lane, a Cloverfield spinoff that had never been announced. If was one of the most jarring surprises the film industry saw since the original Cloverfield, which had an unexpected trailer attached to Transformers in 2007. J.J. Abrams‘s Bad Robot managed to produce a movie without anyone outside of the cast and crew knowing what it was (in production, the film was known under the codename “Valencia”). Such secrecy went against the grain of everything in the movie marketing playbook, breaking the mold of the traditional trailer release template. Announcing a movie only eight weeks before release? That’s unheard of.
10 Cloverfield Lane wasn’t the only 2016 project made incognito though. A few weeks after that trailer dropped, fans on Louis C.K.’s mailing list learned that the comedian had a brand new web series. It wasn’t an advertisement for an upcoming series; it was available right then and there. Horace and Pete, C.K.’s self-funded, self-distributed series appeared online without any previous mention, shirking the usual model of press release announcements, online marketing, junketing, and talk show appearances. It was an incredibly risky move for a television series, especially one from a cast and creator with more of a niche following.
Fast forward to last month and the next best kept secret arrived in the form of an unexpected sequel. At San Diego Comic-Con, a theater full of attendees sat down for a screening of what they thought was the relatively unknown indie horror film The Woods. But during the movie the audience learned they were actually watching a sequel to The Blair Witch Project. By the time screening was over, the initial posters and banners for The Woods had been swapped and replaced by new ones with the movie’s official title, Blair Witch. Directors Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett made a sequel to the famous 1999 found footage movie without anyone, including some of their cast and production manager, realizing it.
This trend of the surprise release is only new to the film and TV worlds. It originated in the music industry with Radiohead’s In Rainbows in 2007, but the most popular practitioner of the surprise release is Beyoncé. The singer dropped her self-titled album sans promotion in late 2013, and since then many have followed in her footsteps, from Drake to U2 to Kendrick Lamar. But while the surprise album release is nothing novel to the music world in 2016, something shifted when Beyoncé unexpectedly dropped Lemonade earlier this year.
With Lemonade, the traditional surprise album release now moved from the aural to the visual. More than just an album packaged with music videos, Lemonade was closer to cinematic experience – and I don’t only mean aesthetically; Lemonade is literally a 60-minute film. Those who tuned in to HBO on April 23 didn’t just listen to new music, but collectively watched a film that told a story through music. One of the biggest names in pop managed to create an entire film, complete with celebrity cameos and hot-button topics any celebrity gossip blogger would drool over, all in secret. It had never been done before on that big of a scale, and it was incredibly impressive.
While listening to Marc Maron’s interview with Chuck Klosterman on his WTF podcast last month, I finally realized what’s truly remarkable about these four surprise releases: They remind us of the energy and thrill of experiencing something unknown. While discussing his new book, But What If We’re Wrong?, Klosterman said sports are one of the few events we still experience where no one knows the results. Unlike the Oscars or the Grammys, where the outcomes are known to a select few in advance, the sporting event is unpredictable by its very nature.
“Sports is a connection to authentic aliveness,” Klosterman said. “This is not something that anybody can control or script. It’s this unknown thing. It’s hard to find situations in life that, [where] even if you don’t know the answer, you know no one knows the answer. There’s something real interesting about ‘nobody knows,’ because you just don’t experience that anymore.” The surprise release may not be the same as witnessing a live event like the Super Bowl, a presidential debate, or a high speed police chase on TV, but they’re the closest things to it in massive entertainment. Like live events they evoke an awareness of the present, instead of a fixation on what’s coming. Without any warning of something’s existence, we’re forced to react and respond without expectations.
This idea of “nobody knows” Klosterman refers to is a rarity in 2016, especially in the entertainment industry. Ours is a culture built on anticipation, where movies end with scenes teasing the next installment in the franchise, never allowing a moment’s rest to absorb what we just saw. We talk about movies years before they debut, we analyze TV plot twists, and anticipate albums for years before hearing a single song. What Matt Singer wrote for The Dissolve back in 2013 about the rise of teaser culture is as true then as it is today: “No one simply consumes media anymore; now reaction, interaction, and prediction are all part of the process as well.” We spend more time talking about art we’ve yet to witness than we do once we actually see it. Over the past several years, teaser culture and speculation culture have led to the slow death of surprise.
The democratization of criticism on the internet, paired with an escalation of entertainment marketing has shifted the way we interact with art. Take something like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a movie discussed at such length it felt like old news once it finally arrived. Or Jon Snow’s completely unsurprising return on Game of Thrones. Through our obsession to know something before it arrives, we’ve pushed ourselves further away from having anything close to a pure interaction with a piece of art.
That’s precisely what makes this year’s surprise releases so welcome. 10 Cloverfield Lane shortened the window of usual dissection and analysis – sure, we did it to a small degree, but the movie still felt new and untainted when it arrived. And despite its unorthodox methods the film was a success, bringing in $25M in its opening weekend after only eight weeks of advertising.
When a thing arrives unannounced, something magical happens. Entering the unknown calls upon our most basic instincts as we’re forced to engage with something on the spot, free of preconceived notions. The sudden arrival of this year’s releases were the natural response to a culture too preoccupied by the future to feel alive in the moment. Traditional marketing and our desire to speculate may be good for business, but it diminishes the wonder of good storytelling.
Lemonade, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Horace and Pete, and Blair Witch are reminders that being caught off guard can be the most pure way to experience something. It harkens back to that childlike feeling of creeping downstairs on Christmas morning, shaking a box and wondering what’s inside of it. Sure, we may want to dig through our parents’ closet to find our unwrapped presents, just as we love devouring teasers, but deep down we all want to feel truly surprised.