Are we being too hard on movie trailers?

Trailer Simon Brew 4 May 2012 - 14:31

Are there too many trailers? Do they give too much away? Should they be stopped? Or should we start cutting them some slack?

The circus surrounding the release of a new trailer for a film has, understandably, begun to generate something of a backlash effect. It’s not tricky to see why. We’re in an era now when the movie trailer is pored over in insane levels of detail (we’re as guilty of that as anyone), and where people are willing to pronounce a film dead before it arrives, purely off the back of a two minute promo clip.

Furthermore, the situation isn’t aided by the fact that movie studios are overplaying their hand a little bit. If you’ve got a really big film on your hands, then it’s not now enough to release a trailer. Now, a few days before, you have to have a trailer of sorts for the trailer itself. It’s clearly nonsense: a ten to 20-second promo of a promo? Why would they do something like that?

Well, primarily because it works. In fact, scrub the word primarily out there: it simply works. Websites, again such as this one, are thirsty for new, interesting material, and generally written by people who are enthusiastic about what they write. Thus, when something pops up for a film that’s on a site’s radar, it’s going to get covered.

Clearly there’s a line: the number of websites posted Prometheus images seems to have been declining as the movie is seemingly disseminated in flip book form ahead of its release. But a trailer for a trailer still generates levels of interest amongst websites and readers, enough to ensure the trend will go on for sometime yet. We can’t say we’re fans of it, but it’s the nature of the beast right now.

Back to the trailers themselves, though. I’ve read lots of complaints about movie trailers these past few weeks, as more big films release their promos. And I want to go through them on a one by one basis, if that’s okay with you…

THERE ARE TOO MANY TRAILERS FOR EACH FILM!

A subjective one, this. Last week, we got a new trailer for The Dark Knight Rises, which is the third for the film so far. I’m old enough to remember a teaser for the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Last Action Hero playing in cinemas a full year before release, and for it still to be considered something of a novelty to see something that far out. Now? It’s an expected part of the marketing mix.

Studios know, basically, that the trailer is the best weapon they have, and it’s unsurprising they use them more and more. Even ten years ago, two good trailers was about your lot. But for a prolonged marketing campaign, the studios know they can inject fresh interest every time they release a new trailer. Thus, we get the current situation, where each release has at least three big trailers, and then the canny ‘international’ trailers, which sneak in another ten seconds of footage somewhere. And, because of the global nature of the web, they get picked up again.

Were you to draw a Venn diagram as to the content of each of the trailers then, of course, the crossover would be substantive. Each new trailer doesn’t suddenly give you a different few minutes of film. It’s generally the same core of material.

Putting the quality of trailers aside for a minute, my sympathy, ultimately, rests a little with the studios here. Trailers are the loudest weapon in a crowded marketplace, and the over-reliance on them is not surprising. Basically, if we didn't attach so much importance to a movie trailer, nor would the studios.

THAT TRAILER WAS RUBBISH! I’M NOT SEEING THE FILM NOW!

Your loss. Ask anyone who saw 21 Jump Street. I don’t remember a thing about the trailers for that movie that really impressed me. But the film, with it all knitted together and in context? I really liked it. It was an abject lesson in how the trailer really isn’t the be all and end all. That cuts both ways, too: the trailer for Your Highness I loved. The end film? I really, really didn’t.

The thing to surely remember is this: the trailer is not the film, and it’s unfair to judge it as such. Its job is to get you interested in the movie, to sell a ticket, and nothing more. It is a sales and marketing tool, and one that wields a power that even the mighty studios themselves can’t control. A good trailer can ignite worldwide interest. A bad one can ignite worldwide scorn. A forgettable one is lost quickly in the ether, safe in the knowledge that more new trailers arrive each and every week.

It’s worth remembering, though, that trailers aren’t often put together by the director of the film concerned. That’s not say they’re not involved, but generally the director tends to be finishing the movie off, rather than cutting together promotional materials.

I remember a friend of mine, many years ago, refusing my recommendation to watch LA Confidential because “the trailer looked rubbish”. He was half right. The trailer was rubbish, but the film was and is amazing. If you’re choosing what to watch purely on the basis of a two-minute video package, then that’s the risk you take.

After all, there is a reason that they don’t give out Oscars for Best Trailer. In the coldest of terms, it is an advert for the product, and not the product itself.

WHAT’S WITH RELEASING THE FIRST FEW MINUTES OF THE FILM?

Ah, I’m with you there. Disney stumbled upon this in the 1990s, when it raised interest in The Lion King through the roof. Instead of a trailer, the studio put out the opening, pre-title scene, one of the most spectacular in the movie, and sold lots of tickets pretty much on the spot. It didn’t matter that the rest of The Lion King movie, by the admission of producer Don Hahn, wasn’t matching up to the same standard at that point. A new marketing trick had been discovered.

It took the mass market invasion of the web to really do something with it, though.

With the advent of sufficient bandwidth, it was possibly to stream full scenes of films, and be confident that people would watch them. Thus, if the ‘buzz’ surrounding the trailers isn’t good enough, why not let the paying public watch five minutes of the film instead? We’ve seen this already this year, with the likes of John Carter and Lockout, and it’s a trend I’d hate to see grow.

I remember watching the trailer for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, and feeling there and then a sense of disappointment that the first time I’d see the car being hurled through a window towards Peter and MJ was in a small window on a laptop screen. That was a big screen moment, and you only get to feel the surprise of it once.

In that instance, I’m talking about one moment. But what about entire scenes? Shouldn’t they, really, be seen in the context of the movie instead? Occasionally, as with The Lion King, there’s an obvious exception, where a scene works brilliantly as a standalone. But it's a dangerous game for that to become the norm.

TRAILERS SPOIL THE FILM!

Only if you watch them. That said, this remains a fair point, and it’s also hard to avoid trailers when you’re watching them in a cinema.

Furthermore, trailers don’t come by default with spoiler warnings on them, and I feel sorry for those who had at least one bit of The Cabin In The Woods spoilt by an over-eager promo, keen to show just a little too much. That’s clever marketing types trying to balance getting people interested, and keeping enough surprises in store. The problem, of course, is if they err too much on the side of caution, the surprises remain just that, but the seats in the cinema remain unfilled. Ask a studio if they'd rather have lots of cash and a spoiled movie, or a less cash and more surprises, and you can guess the answer.

Who’d be a trailer maker?

I’d actually argue that trailers have been savvier about keeping things under wraps these past few years though, with only a few exceptions. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a trailer as keen to give the game away as the one for What Lies Beneath over a decade back, and lessons have clearly been learned from that. That said, What Lies Beneath was a sizeable hit.

The exception remains comedies, where all the best jokes generally get crammed in, teasing the prospect of two hours of solid guffaws that generally aren’t to be found in the final picture.

Overall, though, I’d say it’s not just trailers here. Prometheus is being held up as the example at the moment as a film where too much has been given away, but the fact remains right now that the world hasn’t watched it yet, so it’s too hard to call that. There’s a fear that the massive amounts of video footage and still images have offered a lot of clues, though, and I dearly hope that Sir Ridley and his team have both held a lot back, and also hidden lots of things in plain sight. That’d be a clever use of such a campaign.

Trailers, by their nature, have to show you something of what you’re going to see, and so to some extent, something will always be given away.

In a perfect world – and here’s the ultimate problem – we’d all seek out interesting films of our own accord, and turn up religiously to watch them. We don’t, though. Generally, we pick moves we know about, and cinemas book films they know have some level of public awareness.

And that’s, ultimately, the crux of it. Without a trailer to give a movie a leg up, who would be mad enough to spend $100-200m making a feature film, if word of mouth was the only tool by which to sell it?

You may thus consider trailers as either a necessary evil or a necessary part of the marketing strategy for a movie. Either way, like it or lump it, the key word there is ‘necessary’. And there’s not much we can do about that.

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I pretty much decide if I'm interested in a film from what others tell me, purely because I NEVER WATCH TRAILERS. I put my iPod in during them in the cinema. If I want to see a film, I don't want to be told what's happening before hand. I knew NOTHING about Inception when going in except "dreams" and it made the movie all the more enjoyable. Same with Avengers - didn't see a single bit of promotional material, and I thought the experience was better for it.

If not trailers, I wouldn't go watch "Cabin in the Woods". It had a good trailer that got me excited and later the full feature had actually more than what it exposed in the trailer.

I suspect Prometheus and Dark Knight Rises are using the same strategy. Let's hope it is right.

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